Council considering property tax amnesty for seniors

Columbia-Savin Hill activist Joe Chaisson remembers a time in the early 1980s when a string of hard knocks left him with crippling property tax debt and a burdensome water and sewer bill. Only with the help of a skilled lawyer was he able to pay off the debt on his property, while a special offer from the city's Water and Sewer Department helped him regain his footing without losing utilities service at his home.

The department suggested in 1983 that Chaisson take part in their one-time amnesty program, through which Water and Sewer would waive all interest and late fees if he paid his outstanding bill in full or set up a payment schedule inside an established window of time.

Chaisson, who turns 75 today, serves on committees for the Boston Partnership for Older Adults and the mayor's Area Agency on Aging, drew on that experience last week when he suggested at a meeting of the 'triple A' that the city offer a similar program to seniors struggling to keep up with escalating property taxes on a fixed income. One goal is to help seniors avoid reverse mortgage programs that often lead to foreclosure.

"It's a very simple thing to do. All the city has to do is say: 'We'll give you amnesty for a year, if you pay back-taxes or make arrangements to pay on a payment plan we will absolve all interest and penalties,'" said Chaisson. "It has happened for developers in the past who have built at sites with large existing tax debts, where the city has knocked off how many dollars in fees. If they do it for corporate, why cant they do it for the little guy?"

Chaisson's suggestion was taken up by City Council President Maureen Feeney, who represents Dorchester's third district.

"I think with the increase in property assessments and skyrocketing tax bills for many of the seniors, if they were paying just the taxes and not all the late fees that they may be able to get a substantial amount of their back taxes cleared up," said Feeney.

According to information provided by Feeney's office, property taxes in Boston have increased by 22 percent over last year, the result of new property assessmenin the last five years.

Feeney also sought to counter critics who might say that the program would decrease city revenue at a time when funding is low for crucial services like the police department by suggesting that an amnesty program could actually bring in revenue from seniors who would not otherwise have paid their bill.

The council voted during their weekly meeting on February 14 to send the proposal to the Ways and Means committee, chaired by Councillor Jerry McDermott of Brighton, to determine its feasibility. The Ways & Means committee will also determine whether a council recommendation could be sent directly to the mayor to create such a program, or whether a Home Rule petition would need to be filed at the State House.

The proposal would piggyback on an existing program that allows seniors to defer payment on property taxes, with the caveat that a lien be placed on the property in question. That program often leaves higher property tax bills to be paid by descendents.

"Most seniors don't want to do that because they are concerned about their families and don't want to leave them with that burden. You can't convince them it's not their burden to worry about," said Chaisson.