The Board of Selectmen wants to know how residents feel about a plan to eliminate income restrictions on a federal benefits program so all veterans who live in town can get a break on their property taxes.
Currently, about 150 vets who live in Orange can take advantage of the benefit which allows a $20,000 reduction in their property tax assessment – or $640 tax cut each year. Doing away with the income restriction will open up the program to about another 450 vets – meaning $368,000 in lost tax dollars that will have to be made up by the rest of the town residents.
The proposal will be discussed February 13 at a public hearing at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting at the High Plains Community Center at 7:30 p.m. Under the current ordinance, veterans must make no more than $60,200 if single and $67,900 if married. The state recently passed an ordinance giving municipalities the option of doing away with or setting their own income thresholds. Since 2017 the tax benefit totals $96,000 for the 150 vets participating in the program, if it were to include all vets in town, the shortfall in residential property taxes will be an additional $272,000. The numbers of participants fluctuate depending on deaths and property sales.
The ordinance to reduce veterans’ property assessments – originally by $10,000 – was first proposed in 2004 by Orange native and Clerk of the Veteran’s Affairs Committee at the CT General Assembly Paul Tarbox. 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.
Town Attorney Vin Marino pointed out the Board also has the option of keeping an income cap but perhaps raising it by about $15,000 which would include more vets but not all. “While we are very appreciate of the service of our veterans and strongly support the concept of supporting them regardless of their income levels, it may not necessarily be equitable if a 45-year-old vet is making $150,000 and receives an exemption,” he said. Setting a threshold of $75,000 meets the median income level standards for an average Orange resident and could be an acceptable compromise.
In discussing the possibility of changing the ordinance, members of the board seemed torn between their desire to support veterans and their reluctance to further burden taxpayers who are already strapped. Selectman Mitch Goldblatt said, “There are others in town who are in need, who have trouble making their mortgage and tax payments, and putting food on the table. Orange is at the top of the list for this program, it’s the best in the state and we should be proud of what we’ve done, I’m not sure we need to act so quickly to change it.”
Selectman Paul Davis echoed Goldblatt’s thoughts, adding, “We need to look closely at this and get residents to come in and let their feelings be known. Others will have to make up the $272,000 and we have to keep that in mind as we go forward.”
First Selectman Jim Zeoli pointed out that since Orange has the distinction of being one of the state’s wealthiest municipalities, the town could receive less grant money from the new administration in Hartford and he doesn’t know how this will impact taxpayers. “We may see minimal impact or we may get hit, we don’t have a crystal ball,” he said.
By Laura Fantarella – Orange Town News Correspondent