By Don Eriksson

Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — The Council on Aging (COA) has endorsed bringing the Senior Citizen Tax Workoff Program to Pepperell but selectmen have concerns that make adoption far from simple.

The program authorizes the town to pay senior citizens minimum wage for part-time work. But instead of getting a paycheck, the money is applied against the worker’s property tax bill, up to a maximum of $750.

If adopted, selectmen would set work guidelines and the total amount that could be earned.

The workoff plan has come to Groton and Townsend and 118 other Massachusetts communities. According to Rena Swezey of the Groton assessor’s office who was present for the council meeting, the program is a success in Groton. That community employs 40 people with a maximum workoff benefit of $500.

“That means $20,000 taken off the top of the overlay budget,” said COA Director Sharon Mercurio. “I see it as a win-win. We could be paying an administrative assistant $17 an hour to shred the weekly paper, for example. How ridiculous, when a senior could do it for minimum wage.”

“So many residents are proud but hurting,” Mercurio added. “Times are hard. We have one person trying to live off $900 a month.

Adoption of the workoff program must first go to town meeting. If approved, selectmen make final decision to initiate it or not.

Town administrator Robert Hanson said no one in the selectmen’s office is opposed to the idea, but there are concerns which he relayed to COA Chairman Virginia Malouin in a Jan. 29 letter.

Persons participating in the program must be covered under the town’s liability insurance plan. Any judgment would increase the cost of the policy, he pointed out. An injured person would have no town medical coverage until private coverage is exhausted and worker’s compensation would not apply.

The part time elderly worker would become eligible for unemployment compensation after the maximum work benefit is reached. The cost of the full benefit amount minus the state’s portion would be born by taxpayers and, Hanson wrote, there is no guarantee of work.

Money lost to reduced taxes must be made up somewhere else, even though the amount is small, and administering the program represents an additional office expense.

The council voted 6-1 to establish the plan. The lone negative vote came from Malouin who favored use of the state’s “circuit breaker” tax credit instead. The circuit breaker is an income tax credit for low- and moderate-income elderly residents who pay rent or real estate taxes greater than 10 percent of their income. The maximum credit is $810.

Malouin said after the meeting she had made her vote because the benefits from the workoff and circuit breaker are not cumulative. They work against each other.

Mercurio said she has spoken with the Department of Revenue, state secretary William Galvin, and the Department of Elderly Affairs, all of whom told her this is the first time they had had issues like Hanson’s raised.

Mercurio said Swezey explained Groton seniors are asking the town to appropriate money to cover tax abatements such as those generated by the workoff program.

That and a concern about potential liability expense bother selectmen Lyndon Johnson. Selectman Darrell Gilmore said he prefers a simpler escalating scale of tax breaks as age increases so that the program benefits everyone.

Mercurio argued that if seniors are pushed out of their homes for lack of income, younger families with children will move in, bringing addition costs to the town budget.

“It costs $9,000 a year to educate a child in Groton (based on Swezey’s information),” Mercurio said.

That figure is about $7,500 per pupil in the North Middlesex Regional School District but, Hanson responded after the COA meeting, “What happens when some person dies, or when a person goes to a rest home or goes to live with a relative? Isn’t that the same result?”

“We’ve got a battle ahead of us and my job is to look out for seniors,” Mercurio said. “The cost of living far outweighs what Social Security brings in. We sent out a survey with the census and one question concerned initiating this program. There was overwhelming support for it.”