HARVARD -- For the last 10 years, the Harvard Elderly and Disabled Tax Assistance Committee has been spearheading efforts to keep Harvard a multigenerational community by making it easier for older residents on fixed incomes to keep up with constantly rising property taxes.
It all began at a Town Meeting held in 2002 when the Board of Selectmen offered a measure asking residents to adopt a state statute that would allow the town to add a checkbox on the property tax bill to raise money to help qualifying elderly or disabled homeowners pay their property tax.
With its approval, the Harvard Elderly and Disabled Tax Assistance Committee was formed, with membership made up of three community representatives, the chairman of the Board of Assessors, and the town treasurer.
At the moment, the committee consists of Rick Maiore sitting in for the Board of Assessors, town Treasurer Debbie Nutter, and members at-large Ann Taylor and Laura Andrews.
The goal of the committee is to to try and keep longtime residents in town by helping them with rising property taxes that threaten to overwhelm their limited resources.
"There was nothing specific that led to the Board of Selectmen putting the article on the warrant," said Andrews of how the committee came into being. "Rick Maiore, who had been a selectman, said that town leaders had been talking about the problem of keeping older people in town as taxes continued to increase."
Currently, the tax rate in town is $16.68 for every $1,000 of assessed value.
"We do know that the people we are helping are able to stay in town, so we think the program is successful," noted Andrews. "Residents, in fact, have donated around $10,000 to $12,000 a year and that has let us give something to everyone who applies and qualifies. Our goal this year is to raise $20,000 so we can help out more. We are also sure there are more people in town who could qualify for this assistance, and hope they will come forward. We do ensure confidentiality all the way through the process."
Also helping those on fixed incomes are a number of abatements on property taxes made by the town that also help to ameliorate the tax burden for older residents.
"Abatements are based on property assessments so they wouldn't apply to any age group, but there are three tax exemptions some seniors might qualify for: $1,000 if over 65 with specific income and asset requirements, or $273.87 if over 70 with asset restrictions, or $500 for a blind resident," said Andrews. "There is also a local tax deferral program that has income restrictions.
"Also, the Council on Aging manages the work-off program that lets seniors work up to around 93 hours for town departments and reduce their property taxes by up to $750," added Andrews. "The state also has what it calls a Circuit Breaker tax credit of up to $960 for residents over 65 years old who qualify. That information is in the state tax filing instructions."
And though all those avenues might seem plenty, sometimes they are not enough. Enter the Harvard Elderly and Disabled Tax Assistance Committee, which has worked to fill the gap using donations made by local residents with the specific intention of helping out their neighbors.
I'm not sure about (how much support there is in) the broader community," said Andrews of the committee's current fundraising drive. "We're sort of a quiet group and work behind the scenes. We only do one annual fundraiser because so many other organizations in town are also trying to raise money for their programs. We know that some people support the committee and its goals because they donate. Possibly the others haven't really thought about how hard it would be for longtime residents to leave because they can't afford the taxes anymore."
Regardless, the committee continues to go about its work, including this year's drive.
"We mailed letters to everyone in town last week, asking for donations," said Andrews of how the committee is working to get the word out about how people can help. "We also have a reminder sandwich board that was on the Common and will be at the transfer station. We will work with the town's newspapers to get the word out, too.
"People can donate any time during the year, but our push is for March and April," said Andrews. "Property tax payment reductions are made in May for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1."
The committee screens all applications for eligibility and decides how to allocate donated money based on standards set by the committee.
"I want Harvard to stay a real town, not just a place where only families with school-aged kids live, and then only long enough to put their children through school," said Andrews of the committee's work. "Real towns are multigenerational. Harvard has become expensive because of its good schools and limited development possibilities, both good things in my mind, so not many older people will be moving in. We need to keep the ones we have."
For information about the Harvard Elderly and Disabled Tax Assistance Committee and its work, those interested are urged to visit www.harvard.ma.us, under boards and committees.
There is also information in more conventional form available at Town Hall, the Council on Aging at the Hildreth House, and at the public library.