On senior tax relief and public safety: the importance of process and communication

From the Editors

(4 of 4)

The desire of the Board of Selectmen to provide some property tax relief to New Gloucester seniors was commendable, but the way that this came together was unfortunate, resulting in a failed vote at the recent special town meeting on June 19.  This was the second time a tax relief proposal had come before the voters, the first having been withdrawn by the Selectmen at the regular town meeting in May.  An ordinance combining the town’s fire and rescue departments into one public safety department and clarifying its organization and status might make sense, but it also failed.

As noted by a long-time resident, only one person attended the hastily-called public hearing on these proposed ordinances and there was no explanation of either presented at the hearing or on the town website.  The town manager said that the Public Safety ordinances and revised policies have been in place for the past year, but to our knowledge, this was not communicated to residents.

Many towns have senior property tax relief programs.  The town manager looked at a few to inform her development of the proposed plan for New Gloucester.  But it seems this happened quickly, and without drawing on expertise and participation of interested citizens.  In Westbrook, before they adopted a senior property tax relief program this spring, an ad hoc committee spent a year researching, developing a draft plan, and soliciting input from citizens before it was finalized for a vote.  

New Gloucester’s proposed tax forgiveness program is not the only approach to property tax relief allowed under Maine law.  Local tax deferral programs allow seniors to stay in their homes and defer a portion of their tax bill until the property is sold or transferred, at which time the deferred taxes plus nominal interest are paid back to the municipality.  Towns are also permitted to offer tax relief to seniors in exchange for volunteering.  Careful consideration of all the options might result in a plan that satisfies the concerns of older citizens, such as Laura Jane Sturgis, and of those who, like Carl Wilcox, take a broader view of tax relief and its impact on residents of all ages and incomes.

We urge the Board of Selectmen and the town manager to prioritize improvement of planning processes and communication, to and with the community.  Ensuring that we are all informed and have to opportunity to weigh in on issues and plans that affect all of us before we are asked to vote on them will strengthen our community.

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