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N.Y. town lets seniors work off property taxes
GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Audrey Davison lives alone, gets a $620 Social Security check each month and worries about the sharply rising taxes on her four-bedroom house. Davison, 76, raised her family there and after 43 years, she really doesn't want to leave Greenburgh.
Greenburgh doesn't want her to leave, either.
The town is pushing a program that would let seniors work part time, for $7 an hour, to help pay off some of their property taxes.
"People shouldn't have to sell their house, move away to a place with less taxes, leave behind their family and friends," said Town Supervisor Paul Feiner.
He envisions retired doctors mentoring schoolchildren, retired accountants helping with the town's finances, retired lawyers offering their services for a discount. But there are plenty of less-skilled jobs that need doing, he said.
"It's not like we're going to see grandma running the snowplow," he said. "There are lots of things people can do for the town and it wouldn't cost us that much to pay them."
The proposal has caused a stir in Greenburgh, a town of 90,000 in Westchester County, which has the nation's third-highest homeowner property taxes. The plan would be unusual if not unique in New York, but similar programs are considered successes in Colorado, Massachusetts, South Carolina and elsewhere.
Davison, who suffers from arthritis and sciatica and needs a walker to get around on her bad days, said she pays about $12,000 a year in property taxes -- perhaps $2,000 to the town -- and has already taken out a reverse mortgage to pay her bills.
Talking to Feiner last week at the town senior center, she said, "I would work as long as it was a job where I could sit."
"You could be a receptionist!" Feiner said. "You could greet people right here, when they come in."
"That I would love," Davison said.
Scott Parkin, spokesman for the National Council on Aging, said the program sounded interesting, as long as it wasn't limited to menial work. "It's certainly in line with what we stand for, keeping seniors involved in work or volunteering as a part of healthy aging," he said.
Boulder County, Colo., pioneered a tax workoff program in 1986 for residents over 60 and now has about 250 applicants for the fewer than 100 openings, said spokeswoman Barbara Halpin. The work done by the seniors includes landscaping, gathering climate data, clipping newspapers and staffing the courthouse information booth.
"Taxes aren't that high out here, so even at $7 an hour people can burn off their county taxes pretty quickly," Halpin said. She added that many stay in the program as volunteers after paying off their taxes.
In Concord, Mass., Maria Casey of the personnel department said about 10 seniors get $8.50 an hour to work at research, data entry and groundskeeping. The program, started in 1999, "allows seniors to be able to work and be involved in the community, and the town benefits by their work," she said.
Feiner is suggesting creating about 25 slots for seniors and letting them work off $500 or so a year. His proposal faces some obstacles. If the wages earned are to be tax-free and directly credited to the property tax bill, the state Legislature would have to approve. In addition, unions would have to be convinced that the program is no threat to their members' job security.
Feiner is hoping for at least a pilot program next year.
Eventually, he said, he would like to see the county and the local school districts adopt similar plans.
"If we got seniors working for the schools, there might be a more intergenerational feeling there," he said. "It might be easier to pass the school budgets."
Janet Goodman, a retired teacher and travel agent who was leading a knitting class at a Greenburgh community center, said paying the bills at her town house in Hartsdale, one of Greenburgh's seven villages, is "a constant struggle." She said she would gladly take part in a tax workoff program "as long as the work is interesting."
"You have to be creative," she said.