GROTON — After lengthy discussions about timing, necessity and proper procedure, the Town Council narrowly passed a property tax break on Tuesday for senior and disabled residents qualifying under the state’s Circuit Breaker program.
The council discussions stretched across meetings on July 26 and August 2.
At the July 26 meeting, Councilor Rachael Franco spoke about the need to bring property tax relief to low income elderly and disabled residents.
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“There has been an outcry from seniors in our community and some disabled people that have said it’s very difficult for them to stay here and they want to stay here because their family is here and they don’t want to have to move away,” said Franco.
There are 246 Circuit Breaker accounts in Groton and the tax breaks cost the town $128,934.37, according to 2020 town data. The 50 percent increase in abatements would add $64,467.19 to the total cost, according to a new report by the council’s Property Tax Abatement Study Committee.
The maximum tax benefit will increase from $1,000 to $1,500 for a single person and from $1,250 to $1,875 for a married couple.
The study committee, which was formed by the council in 2021, was charged with vetting options for a tax abatement and making a recommendation to the council within a 60-day period – a limit required by state statute.
Study Committee Chair John Wirzbicki, who presented the committee’s report to the Town Council Committee of the Whole on July 26, called that requirement a herculean task given the 20 to 30 available programs.
Wirzbicki said that from the committee’s perspective, supplementing the existing Circuit Breaker program would benefit the most needy portion of the population while also being relatively easy for the town to administer because the program is already in place, making the financial impact simple to track.
He said that the committee did not reach consensus on whether to pursue other programs, and some committee members were not in favor of providing further tax abatements.
“There was a significant feeling on the committee that we’ve already provided enough tax abatements as things stand. There were at least a couple of members who, had it been an up or down vote as to whether or not to have a tax abatement, would have voted to have none,” Wirzbicki told the council.
Wirzbicki also pointed out that the selection process was flawed from the start given that state statute calls for the town council to choose a program and for the committee to research it and report back. Instead, the council tasked the committee with vetting a wide range of tax abatement programs and reporting on which would be most financially effective for the town and beneficial to the recipients.
After Wirzbicki spoke, Franco disclosed to the council that her mother receives benefits from the Circuit Breaker program. When she asked if she could proceed with commenting and voting, Town Manager John Burt said she could since the information was part of the meeting record.
Franco said her concern was with keeping seniors in the community. She moved to recommend a 50 percent increase in the Circuit Breaker abatement as presented in the committee report.
Councilor Melinda Cassiere said she agreed with the committee’s report that the program should avoid or minimize any additional administrative burden on town employees as well as provide accuracy in measuring fiscal impact.
“If we’re going to implement any tax breaks, we should be able to tell the taxpayer what the burden is going to be,” she said.
Councilor Portia Bordelon said the council would be voting on the first draft of the proposed tax abatement and she was not comfortable moving forward without further evaluation.
Bordelon suggested sending the proposal back to the committee and asking for more research of tax abatement programs, including those for veterans — but Wirzbicki said that under the statute, the committee could not reconvene and a new committee would have to be formed.
Councilor Scott Westervelt said that Groton already provides a significant number of abatements and moved for a zero percent increase in the tax abatement.
“I don’t think this is being done out of a widespread community complaint that something is wrong. We are responsible to all taxpayers. I don’t think we need to burden them,” he said,
Councilor David McBride said he supported the Circuit Breaker program but was not supportive of the proposed change without additional due diligence.
But Franco called the proposal “a miniscule cost to our entire budget,” and said, “I think we should have some empathy on people who are struggling.”
In a vote to approve the recommendation of the study committee, initiated by Franco, the council – as the Committee of the Whole – voted 6-3 in favor, with Bordelon, McBride and Westervelt voting no.
Tax abatement final vote: August 2
Because the council voted as the Committee of the Whole at the July 26 meeting, the matter was placed on the agenda for a final vote at the August 2 regular Town Council meeting.
At the August 2 meeting, McBride asked why an abatement that would take effect in the following fiscal year was under discussion outside of budget season, the period when the council does due diligence on the budget and reviews all of the town’s abatement plans
“We’re transparent during the budget process… And I think it’s fiscally irresponsible to change a program that’s going to impact the budget,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m not in favor of this program — what I’m saying is the timing of this is not proper.”
When Bordelon asked Town Manager Burt if the abatement needed a public hearing, he said he was comfortable with proceeding without one, but that he “might feel differently if we received many comments through public comment.”
Bordelon said she was uncomfortable with the lack of public hearing and that the process was rushed even though there was no deadline.
“We had our first read at our last meeting that we reviewed this and we did not offer public comments. So just because a few people haven’t spoken about it yet doesn’t mean that there’s not work to be done,” she said.
Westervelt noted that the committee was not 100 percent committed to “any kind of tax abatement at all,” and said, “I think we need to go back and look at this and make sure that it’s really something that needs to happen.”
Councilor Aundré Bumgardner said that the council needed to take more time to look at the tax proposal and that he would support a motion to reconsider.
“As soon as the committee made their recommendations, a motion was made on the floor. And so my ask to the council is let’s slow down… Even though these programs will help taxpayers directly, it is still a cost to the town, so as a result of that, let’s do our due diligence.”
After further discussion, the council voted not to reconsider the issue and proceeded to approve the 50 percent increase on the tax abatement, which passed by a 5-4 margin.
Voting in favor of the abatement were Mayor Juan Melendez Jr. and Councilors Bruce Jones, Juliette Parker, Franco and Cassiere. Voting against were Bumgardner, Bordelon, McBride and Westervelt.