EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 22, 2013

Pelham examines senior tax breaks

Pelham officials fear relief may be too generous

By John Toole

---- — PELHAM — Tax break shopping by seniors eager for savings of $7,000 or more has elderly exemptions under review.

Voters here could see a proposal for reforms at Town Meeting.

Town officials are concerned by a spike in the number of tax breaks and whether the community adequately reviews finances of those seeking relief.

A worry is if the community is too generous with seniors, then younger taxpayers will bear an unfair burden of the cost of local government.

Assessing officials, meeting with selectmen, have proposed more comprehensive filings for seniors to better verify income and assets.

The town last year awarded 43 exemptions accounting for $9.5 million in assessed value and $232,000 in taxes, they told selectmen.

The number of new applicants has doubled over five years amid expansion of 55-plus housing units, assessing officials said.

But they also are seeing more seniors from out of town asking about Pelham's tax break.

"We have found people are exemption shopping," assessing assistant Susan Snide told selectmen. "They are looking for whatever town gives them the best offer."

Monica Hurley, the town's contracted assessing agent, told selectmen Pelham is just one of two New Hampshire communities, the other is Newington, that offer a 100 percent tax break.

Pelham also has a two-tier system, where most communities have three.

Pelham gives a 33 percent tax break to people ages 65 to 74. Those over 75 can get a 100 percent tax break if they qualify.

Most of the 43 exemptions granted, 38, are for the full 100 percent, officials said.

The 100 percent exemption can be worth more than $7,000 to taxpayers who own a home valued at $300,000, assessing officials said.

They acknowledged encountering one or two people they believed were not forthright in their applications.

They also said some heirs have failed to come forward about ending a tax break upon the death of a senior property owner.

Selectman William McDevitt said when there are advantages like a $7,000 tax break, people will try to game the system.

"It's human nature, we all know that," McDevitt said.

If the town is being forced into a more vigilant system because of such behavior, McDevitt said, he would support one.

Hurley said the intent isn't to deter people from applying, but to get more information to verify assets and consider options for making the program financially sound.

Selectmen told assessing officials they prefer an application process that isn't so daunting elder taxpayers are befuddled or scared away from a tax break they deserve.

Selectemen's Chairman Ed Gleason said selectmen will continue discussing the issue next week and could bring a warrant article to voters at Town Meeting.

Gleason said selectmen are being encouraged to take action.

"We were getting calls the next morning after the meeting, they had three at the town clerk's office," Gleason said. "People were saying, 'This is awful, you've got to do something.' We've got to at least have a dialogue about this."