Our Opinion: North Adams program a winner for seniors and vets

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One of the more imaginative laws sitting on the Commonwealth's books gives municipalities the option of allowing certain of their citizens — specifically seniors and veterans — to work off a portion of their property taxes by performing tasks for city government. North Adams is the latest municipality in the Berkshires to take advantage of this statute, which has already been implemented in Williamstown, Lanesborough, Dalton and Lenox. The law is not a mandate, but rather leaves the prerogative to towns and cities as to whether they can afford and wish to extend this offer to their citizens.

It is no secret that the City of North Adams is not awash in wealth, but at the same time its citizens bear a tax burden that can be painful for many of its residents. Of those, seniors can be particularly stretched, while at the same time they may possess life skills that could be of use to their home community. As for veterans who have honorably served their country, it is the right thing for their towns to extend such an opportunity in exchange for their having defended the freedoms we all enjoy.

After a proposal by North Adams' mayor, Thomas Bernard, the city council enacted two programs that would open the doors to those who satisfy strict requirements. In order to be eligible, seniors must be at least 60 years old. Other requirements are that seniors can only reduce their taxes by a maximum of $1,500 per year, while veterans under 60 are allowed a $1,000 limit. The rate at which an individual's tax will be cut equals the state's minimum wage of $11 per hour, and the city must set its own income threshold requirements.

It is rare that such a simple law can have so many positive ramifications. First, the city benefits by having clerical and other duties performed at no direct cost to itself. True, other taxpayers must make up the difference to city coffers, but considering that only a handful of participants is being considered, this should not be an undue burden. Moreover, the numbers are so small that they are not a threat to existing employment. Second, since the positions that will be on offer are technically volunteer positions, the city will not have to pay benefits or other ancillary expenses related to formal employment. Third, the qualification requirements ensure that only those most in need of such help will be considered. Fourth, participants need not worry about extra income that might make them ineligible for other programs from which they already benefit.

Finally, and probably most important, is the sense of dignity, usefulness and worth such a program will confer upon its participants. Some of the saddest spinoff effects of being elderly are the loneliness, isolation and depression that can befall individuals who, through lack of friends and family, immobility or other reasons are deprived of human contact on a regular basis. Being able to go to a job and participate as a valued member of a work environment can be the best tonic to combat the psychological predations of old age.

Mayor Bernard and the city he leads should be applauded for seeing past the minimal impact this program will have on city coffers, and for understanding that there is much more to be gained by giving residents an opportunity to do something meaningful while easing their financial burden. The only question that remains is why other municipalities, especially a large one like Pittsfield, don't take advantage of this law. They have so little to lose, and so much to gain.

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