This is a very sensitive topic, and can easily be taken the wrong way. So while attempting to exercise the utmost care in raising it, I respectfully ask:
As local taxpayers, why do we focus more attention on senior citizens, those on fixed incomes, and the most economically disadvantaged among us during a tax increase or Proposition 2 1/2 override, as opposed to the rest of the time?
That is not meant in any way to undermine or overlook the great work done by so many locally who help our less economically fortunate neighbors. Local churches, food pantries, senior centers, and the plethora of other groups who help the most vulnerable among us are full of dedicated, caring volunteers who generously give of their time and themselves.
But there are many municipalities where things like senior centers struggle with budgetary issues. When officials and voters have to make difficult decisions as to how to use their limited budgetary dollars, things like education and public safety are understandably given priority.
And while people often rally in support of increasing services like senior programs, the overall public discussion never seems to be that strong or overwhelming. You seldom see “Increase Senior Center Budget” on lawn signs across a town.
Yet go to Norton today and you will see “Yes” and “No” signs everywhere. That is because on April 25 Norton voters will decide whether to approve a $2 million tax increase designed to increase services in the areas of schools, police, fire, library, highway, senior citizens and more. If you own the “average” home in town, valued at $350,000, it would translate to a $300 increase in your property tax.
And as happens in almost every town that takes an override question to the ballot — folks suddenly discover their senior citizens. They become the focus of anti-override concerns. And people who might not normally go out of their way to help older folks now put them on the top of their alleged priority list.
Let’s get a few things straight. First, not all senior citizens are struggling. Many have planned their financial futures and are living comfortably though not lavishly. Some are firmly ensconced in the middle class. But too many have suffered through harsh economic times and are hurting, and we owe them (and everyone else) our due diligence in trying to control taxes and spending.
Far too often, seniors are used as an excuse by non-seniors as a reason they don’t want their tax bills increased. Now, no one — old or young — truly wants to pay more in taxes. In addition, you don’t need an excuse to be against increasing taxes. It is quite common to oppose that just in principle.
But sometimes we forget that there is a flip side to our well-intentioned desire to keep tax bills lower for senior citizens.
Let’s imagine there are two houses in a town valued at $350,000 each. In one lives a retired senior couple on a fixed income. In the other resides a married couple with three school-age children, each parent working two jobs. If a theoretical override passes, each will pay an extra $300 per year in property taxes. And each will get improved public safety, schools, library, etc.
But what happens if it doesn’t pass?
Well, the retired couple is gratefully spared the $300 although they get no increased services. So is the couple with kids, though now they have to pay an additional $600 in bus fees, $1,000 in athletic fees, $600 in extra-curricular club fees — a total of $2,200 — all for things kids used to get as part of their educational experience. One of the parents now has to consider a third job to make ends meet, or deny their children what many believe to be a critical part of growing up.
We are right to be concerned about our seniors. But just as the budgetary levels in cities and towns cannot be set according to the ability of the wealthiest citizens to pay, it also cannot be based on the ability of those least able.
And we have to compromise and admit we can’t correct problems on the local level that are in fact created and perpetuated by our state and federal government.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.