By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
WHITMAN — The Select Board, on Tuesday, July 12, voted to establish a policy governing seniors participating in the tax work-off program and adhere to town policy on minimum wage.
Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman noted that voters at Town Meeting had approved an article to permit residents age 60 and over to reduce their real estate taxes by allowing a maximum number of hours each year instead of a maximum dollar amount.
“We have not has a policy for the senior tax work-off program in the past, just sort-of some procedures that were laid out by the Council on Aging,” he said. “It seemed like an opportune time to have a policy to bring clarity on a couple things.”
He based the policy on one he wrote for Hanover when he served as Town Manager there.
Whitman will differ from the town’s current practice in that the board had recently voted that town employees should be paid minimum wage. There is also currently no cap on the number of tax work-off employees, but the proposed policy recognizes there might be with the 125 hours — now at $8 per hour, but possibly more — there might be some increased interest, which might require capping the number of people included in the program.
“Tax work-off employees are employees,” Heineman said. “They’re employees of a different kind. It’s up to the board what the hourly rate would be — it doesn’t have to be minimum wage.”
But his proposal left it to Select Board consideration to possibly have it at minimum wage.
There are currently 32 slots available under program guidelines, all of which have been filled.
“This would make it so there could possibly be a cap of 35,” he said. “If there were more applicants for the program … how would a determination be made about who was in the program and who wasn’t?”
Heineman’s policy proposal would give preference to those already in the program, establishing a first-come-first-served waiting list, provided that those on the waiting list would be well-matched by their skills and background to open positions.
Vice Chair Dan Salvucci asked what a position should pay per hour for a 125-hour post to take $1,500 of their taxes.
Heineman said it would be $12 per hour. The present minimum wage is $14.25 per hour (taking about $1,800 of property taxes) and rising to $15 per hour on Jan. 1. Right now a senior in the program working 100 hours at $8 per hour has $800 taken off their property taxes.
Heineman said the program is not required to meet the minimum wage requirements.
“I don’t think it meets the intent that we set when we set that policy, though,” Chair Randy LaMattina said. “I see tremendous value in this program. It’s helping out seniors in two ways, financially by way of taxes, but most of us have known these people from the time we voted the first time until last election. These are dedicated seniors that also get a lot, personally, out of this program.”
LaMattina said he had no problem going to minimum wage for the program.
The Council on Aging manages staffing through the program.
“I certainly would support it going to minimum wage,” member Shawn Kain said. “I feel like it’s a benefit they should be entitled to, not something [where] they should jump into a lottery and potentially get [sunk].” He advocated removing the cap on the number of participants.
“The question is, how much can the town [afford to] take off its taxes?” Salvucci asked. “Can we lose the revenue and still give services to the town? You’ve got to think on that issue.”
“And are there 100 positions to fill?” member Justin Evans asked.
Heineman said he expects the increase in hourly pay, along with the cap of 35 positions, the policy would take only about another $23,000 out of the overlay account, which funds it. The account typically carries $125,000.
“It would come out of taxes and reduce the excess levy,” he said.
LaMattina said he would like to see, monetarily, what the policy rules would do with the new rate.
“This program has been, I think, relatively stable,” he said. “If interest was out there, or if the need was out there, it can be amended.”