This on-line story has been updated since the print version appeared February 17 clarifying details about the Paproski farm acquisition, and action by the Board of Finance on the proposed letter to President Trump.
The Legislative Council found itself painted into a corner from a timing perspective as members took up discussion and a Board of Finance recommendation that the coming year’s Senior Tax Relief program parameters remain unchanged. After some lengthy deliberation, the council voted 11-1 to accept the recommendation and leave the program as is for the upcoming benefit period.
The council’s ordinance committee — which has been reviewing and taking public input for months on possible changes to the second best property tax benefit in the state — was bound to seek input from the finance board before bringing any proposed changes back to the full council for consideration. But after finance board members determined they wanted to take a more detailed look at the program, suggesting some substantive changes might be in order, they opted to recommend no changes to the program.
Both the finance board and the council had the prerogative to consider adjusting one or more elements of the program: the earning parameters for qualifying tax relief program applicants; the amounts of relief granted under those four parameters; keeping, modifying, or eliminating an asset questionnaire applicants must submit as part of the qualifying documentation; and/or an affidavit the applicants must sign and submit.
Last September, Ordinance Committee Chairman Ryan Knapp came before the finance board requesting input. Prior to that meeting, the Ordinance Committee was charged with reviewing the program after the town logged 22 fewer applicants for the local four-tiered elderly and disabled tax credit program in 2016, leaving just under a quarter-million-dollar surplus.
The program is currently funded with a $1.65 million allocation in the municipal budget. Based on 2012 home values, the average benefit recipient received about a 40 percent discount on their property tax bill between the local program and others managed at the state level.
Under the program, households earning $45,001 to $55,000 may qualify for a maximum benefit of $1,750; those earning $55,001 to $65,000 may qualify for a maximum benefit of $1,300; and a recently added tier of eligibility for those earning between $65,001 and $70,000 in reported income provides an $800 reduction.
The qualifying cap for applicants — 200 percent of the median assessed value of their residential home — is $468,000 for the 2015-17 benefit cycle. The qualifying asset cap, after one’s local primary residence, is $1.25 million.
Mr Knapp cited the finance board’s action as he brought the ordinance committee’s recommendation to the full council February 15, and indicated that even if the council was to ignore the finance board input and push through changes, it was likely too late to implement them for the upcoming benefit cycle. The application period for that cycle opens on March 1.
During discussion, Council member George Ferguson asked Mr Ryan if his committee had any designs on making changes before the next benefit cycle. Mr Knapp replied that some of his ordinance committee members may have been inclined to expand the needs-based program, change the benefit amount levels, or adjust aspects of the asset test. But given the time constraints and the finance board telegraphing its members likely want to make substantive changes, his committee was recommending no changes in the short term.
Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob said that if any of her colleagues felt strongly or came to the meeting with ideas about tweaking the program guidelines — to the extent it could be done without a formal ordinance change — they still had an opportunity to do that.
Councilman Anthony Filiato reacted strongly to the line of conversation, taking issue with the “needs-based” reference.
“I think using the term ‘needs-based’ for people who have assets of $1 million is ludicrous,” he said, referring to the asset cap. “If you have $1 million, you can afford to pay your taxes. And I’m not happy with this process — it’s been taken away from the council. We should have had a recommendation last summer. Now it’s in front of us with a timeline issue — this is not appropriate.”
Finance Board Confidence
First Selectman Pat Llodra told the council after sitting in on several of the finance board discussions on the relief program, she was not sure if its members understood how they should be acting with an ordinance-based issue.
“And I’m certain they don’t understand the timing,” Mrs Llodra said. “You need to be very clear and focused — clarify what they need to recommend and the timing. I saw their struggle twice now.”
Hearing that, Ms Jacob requested Mr Knapp draft a letter to the finance board chairman.
“Put in writing the timeline and what they need to do,” Ms Jacob asked. “Their failure to act in the right time will not preclude our continuing of the process.”
Councilman Neil Chaudhary lamented that the ordinance committee had “been working on this for a long time,” and admitted that until late last summer, the committee “didn’t realize we needed a Board of Finance recommendation.”
Mr Knapp affirmed, “We can change these numbers by resolution,” and said his committee was likely ready to change some of the category allocation amounts.
“But if we do, it’s springing things on people at eleventh hour,” he said, adding there was growing concern that the council “could expand the program and people won’t know they are included. And others who now qualify may not anymore — and we always had an eye on the asset test. We are one of just a few towns that [have one].”
Mr Knapp said that Town Finance Director Robert Tait also felt that asset test was important because “there were some egregious offenders taking advantage of the program.”
Mrs Llodra suggested taking a step back, saying it would be difficult to administer any changes at this late date.
“We want to be sure everybody who is qualified is fully informed, and be done early enough so they can get the information out,” she said.
Mr Knapp said through the committee process, he and his colleagues “heard so much contention for or against — I’d be more in favor of something more automated and that doesn’t involve annual action [on the part of applicants].”
He admitted that the town does not possess “great data” on specifics of the program and its users, “and we’ll never appeal to everyone.”
“All the public comment was around expanding the program,” he said. “Lots of seniors spoke to their struggles,” he said. After four years of examining the benefit program, the outcome on the table was “extremely frustrating and disappointing.”
“Maybe we could have come to some compromise — maybe if we had this conversation in November,” he said.
Calling the question, the panel voted to support the motion taking no action, with Mr Filiato being the only dissenting vote.
In Other Actions
The council also voted February 15 to unanimously support the town’s allocation of funds toward purchasing development rights on a large tract of Castle Hill Farm from the Paproski family, for the purpose of agricultural soil preservation — an initiative proposed in partnership with the state Department of Agriculture.
Last November 7, the Board of Selectmen unanimously agreed to enter into a partnership with the Department of Agriculture to ensure that unique agricultural soil on the parcel in question is preserved for the foreseeable future.
To accomplish Newtown’s part of the deal, selectmen endorsed tapping two years worth of open space funding earmarked in the CIP to underwrite 45 percent, or $450,450, of a $1,001,100 payment to the local family to obtain an agricultural easement on about two-thirds of the 94-plus-acre parcel just off Sugar Street. The balance of the funds will come from the state.
The council’s approval to authorize spending was the final step in the town’s part of the process to facilitate completing the deal.
Newtown Deputy Director of Planning Rob Sibley, who was on hand to answer questions, said the proposal stipulates that a Paproski family member, a subsequent owner, or designated individual directly associated with the farm must remain as residents; that the property must remain an active agricultural enterprise; and that all state and town requirements related to the contract must be in place no later than March 31.
He also said there is a possibility that a US Department of Agriculture grant could offset up to 60 percent of the town’s portion of the purchase.
The council also unanimously voted February 15 against endorsing a proposed letter to President Donald Trump that has been circulating among several top elected boards. The letter — which originated from Eric Paradis, chairman of the local Democratic Town Committee — requested in part that the president disavow a particular web and radio “hoaxer” who maintains the Sandy Hook tragedy never occurred.
After officials learned a number of family members of immediate victims were against the effort, and some discussion, members agreed they would not authorize endorsing the letter.
Prior to circulating a draft of the Trump letter to immediate families, the Board of Selectmen voted to sign it. Mrs Llodra told The Newtown Bee that she will be presenting her colleagues with comments from several victims’ families, and will reconsider the matter when selectmen meet February 21.
The finance board discussed the letter February 16 after the print edition of the newspaper went to press, and voted 4 – 2 against signing.
It is unclear whether the letter would still go out if selectmen overturn their previous decision to sign it, and the Boards of Education remains the only elected body participating in the endorsement.