The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to raise the income threshold to allow more veterans in town to participate in a federal benefits program to reduce their property taxes by about $640 a year. More than a dozen veterans and several town residents attended the recent public hearing, all in support of amending the plan to raise current income restrictions from $60,200 to $75,000. Those making $75,000 or less can claim a $20,000 reduction in their property tax assessment.s
Town officials aren’t sure yet how many more vets will now qualify for the benefit with the increased income cap. Since 2017 the town has absorbed the $96,000 in tax dollars from the 150 vets currently qualifying for the program, but there are about 425 more veterans in town whose income exceeded the $60,200 maximum.
According to Tax Assessor Mark Branchesi, so far his office has only received an application from one veteran. “It’s difficult to predict how many more we will get, we won’t really know until after the May 15 deadline,” he said. “I know how many vets we have in town but I don’t know what their incomes are.” If the program extends to all vets in town, the town could see a loss of an additional $272,000 tax dollars in its grand list. The numbers of participants fluctuate depending on deaths and property sales.
Support for including more vets in the program was unanimous among selectmen and residents alike, many speaking before the board in favor of the plan. Wilson Road octogenarian Eugene Haeckel told the Board he was disturbed by comments at the last Selectmen’s meeting during which board members expressed concerns about the financial impact of lost tax dollars amending the ordinance might have. “I served in WW11, Korean War, Vietnam, and the Hungarian Revolution,” he said. “When I was in the army, I was getting $21 a month and I think we deserve everything being offered. I don’t like to hear ‘it costs money.’ I didn’t hear about money when I was making $21 a month in the war.”
As Town Clerk, resident Patrick O’Sullivan handles the filing of military discharges in town and is familiar with many of the town’s veterans. “We are surrounded by unassuming heroes,” he said. “Orange is a town that is blessed with individuals willing to sacrifice for our country and we as benefactors of our vets’ ultimate sacrifice should all support this legislation.” Hitching Post Road resident Lewis Merritt sees the benefit as a way of thanking veterans for their service and encouraging them to come to Orange. “Let’s welcome our sons and daughters home from service and help them find a job and a place to live,” he said.
Orange native and Clerk of the Veteran’s Affairs Committee at the CT General Assembly Paul Tarbox was instrumental in the original ordinance and advocating for raising the income threshold to include more vets. Addressing the board he said, fiscal restraints have no place in the discussion to increase veterans’ benefits. “This is about the character of the town and its citizens,” he said. “Veterans put their lives at risk and serve for your brother and sister. This tax exemption is a thank you on behalf of the community. If you choose to honor our vets you do it regardless of income and social status. Their income wasn’t asked when they were being shot at, their income wasn’t asked when they were deployed, and their income wasn’t asked when they had hardships.”
Tarbox first proposed the ordinance to reduce veterans’ property assessments—originally by $10,000 — in 2004. In 2017, the Orange Board of Selectmen was the first in the state to increase the property tax assessment benefit to $20,000 and Orange remains among the highest in the state for income thresholds and exemptions. In voting to amend the ordinance, selectmen voiced their appreciation and continued support of the town’s veterans. Selectman Paul Davis said, “Orange has taken the lead in these benefits we extend to our vets, and the board has always unanimously passed these proposals. It’s an important benefit we can and should extend to our vets and I’m happy to support it.” Selectman Ralph Okenquist, the only veteran on the board, recused himself from the vote as he may be eligible to receive the benefit in the future.
Veterans who wish to apply for the benefit must submit an application before May 15 which is available on the town’s website or from the tax assessor’s office.
By Laura Fantarella – Orange Town News Correspondent