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Eligible seniors in Great Barrington could get a property tax deferral — if voters approve the plan in the spring

Great Barrington Select Board

The Great Barrington Select Board came out in favor of a senior tax deferral proposal that will now go before town voters in the spring.

GREAT BARRINGTON — If voters approve of it at the annual town meeting this spring, eligible senior citizens will be able to apply for property tax deferments.

With some modifications, the Select Board, in a 3-2 vote on Monday, greenlighted the proposal first endorsed by the town’s Finance Committee.

What’s this all about? Since 1974, the state has granted municipalities the authority to allow qualifying seniors to delay payment of all or part of their property taxes.

A deferral does not remove a tax obligation. Rather, it delays payment plus interest accrued during the year(s) of deferment, until the time when the eligible homeowner no longer owns the home, such as when it’s sold, or when the home is transferred to a trust or when the owner dies.

Can the town tinker? Yes, and the Select Board did this week.

For instance, the town can set the income limit for eligibility. The town can also set the interest rate for the time of deferment, after which interest then accrues at 16 percent (a rate set years ago by the state that cannot be changed by the town).

What will voters decide on? At the annual town meeting, which will be held in May or June, voters will decide whether to accept a property tax deferment program that would be made available to seniors (65 years or older) who have lived in Massachusetts for at least 10 consecutive years and have owned property for at least five years.

The Select Board on Monday night endorsed a deferral interest rate of 5 percent and an annual income for eligible seniors of no more than $40,000 (this income would apply to a single person or a couple).

(The Finance Committee had recommended to the Select Board an income limit of $35,000 and an interest rate of 4 percent. The committee based its recommendation envisaging a retired couple living only on Social Security. The nationwide average Social Security benefit is $18,600 per person.)

Why a deferral program now? Town resident Vivian Orlowski has said the program would help “seniors age in place” at a time of rising expenses and rising real estate costs.

She said that other towns have seen the deferred taxes, plus interest, paid back on average of around six years.

Carol Diehl, of Housatonic, has said that the deferral program is “critical” for those on the financial brink who still work.

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How many residents might apply for this? Town officials say they don’t expect many. They do caution that they don’t really know.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been a real popular thing in a lot of other towns, and we’ll see what happens,” Ross Vivori, the town’s principal assessor, told the Select Board. He was not concerned that the program would stretch the town staff’s ability to handle it.

Orlowski, who has studied data from other towns, said she expects only a few residents to take advantage of the program. For instance, she said, the town of Norwell adopted the program, and out of its population of about 11,000 residents, only about six to eight property owners annually apply for the deferment.

A burden for others? If, as town officials believe, only a small number of property owners were to take advantage of the deferment, the increased costs to the remaining property owners would be miniscule.

“It’s just pennies, because it’s a small amount,” said Ed Abrahams, a member of the Select Board. “And, ultimately, we will get it back.”

What other programs are available? Well, that’s just it: There are others, which is why Leigh Davis, vice chair of the Select Board, suggested the deferment might be an option of last resort for property owners.

Town officials say financially strapped seniors can also take advantage of a federally funded heating fuel assistance program, which currently assists 63 senior homeowners in town. Also, the program known as “41C” provides 16 seniors in town with a $1,000 property tax exemption.

There are other programs, too, including what’s known as the state’s Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit Program and the Senior Property Tax Work-Off Program.

Do seniors know what’s available? Good question. Another good question is: Does it all get too confusing? Both questions came up Monday evening.

“There is a relatively long list of existing property tax exemption programs, mostly targeted at seniors,” Finance Committee Chair Philip Orenstein told the Select Board. “And they all have different eligibility criteria, different application processes, different requirements. They’re fairly complex.”

He said, “Taking a step back, I would suggest that at some future point, the town can explore ways to provide more comprehensive guidance for the seniors on how to navigate the various options, because we wouldn’t want people who otherwise would want it, and would qualify, to not do so because it’s way too complicated, or they don’t have good vision, or they don’t have good internet access, or they just find it overwhelming.”

Felix Carroll can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6391.

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