Here’s a government program that works. Sort of.
Seniors living on Martha’s Vineyard with time, talent, and the desire to help out their town have a chance to also help out themselves by lowering their property tax bills. The “senior citizen tax work off” program was created by the commonwealth in 2003, and on Martha’s Vineyard, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and West Tisbury have, through town meeting approval, accepted the program as a local option.
Seniors wishing to participate in the program are legally employees, but do not receive a paycheck. Instead they receive a voucher that is presented to the town’s board of assessors office for the property tax credit. To join the program, a senior must be 60 years of age or older, a year-round resident of their town, and own their property. The senior employee earns the state’s minimum wage (currently $12 an hour) and may, depending on a town’s budget, earn $1,000 to $1,500 per calendar year.
In Oak Bluffs, where the program began in 2014, as personnel director Wendy Brough told The Times, there are currently 15 job slots budgeted for which they may use senior volunteers or employees.
“When we started the program we had eight positions, and now it is 15 vacancies where we can now use these volunteers,” Brough said. The assignments range from drivers for the Council on Aging (picking up donated food), clerical “helping hands” at the Council on Aging, and a variety of town administrative tasks.
Seniors interested in participating will be asked to apply in person with Brough, fill out an application form, and be interviewed. Oak Bluffs does not require that the senior document any income limits, and the annual salary earnings are capped at $1,000.
“Right now I would love to find someone who has the skills we need to help us with filing using the digital database,” Brough said. “It is hard to find volunteer work that we can say, ‘Do this for two weeks,’” because the program only allows a senior to complete 84 hours of work during the year.
Oak Bluffs Council on Aging director Rose Cogliano told The Times that she “loves the program because it helps us operate at a level far beyond what we can do with only two salaried employees.” For example, on Wednesday and Fridays the reception desk is staffed by Michelle (she asked not to be identified), who would be volunteering her services with or without the tax-abatement benefit because the retired healthcare professional said she “needs to do something.”
The Council on Aging currently has seven people providing services under the program, and plans to add two more when it finds two senior “green finger volunteers to help the center’s gardens look their best from April through September.”
In West Tisbury, the program was initiated in 2003, and the Up-Island Council on Aging is the starting point for interested seniors. Chilmark and Aquinnah do not participate in the program.
In West Tisbury, applicants must have a verified income eligibility using the HUD median family income scale for Dukes County. Volunteers are limited to 125 hours of work in the calendar year, earning no more than $1,500.
“Since 2003, Joyce [Albertine, Up-Island Council on Aging director] and I can only recall four people who have participated … perhaps there is just a lack of awareness of the benefit,” said West Tisbury treasurer and tax collector Kathy Logue.
Albertine explained that after a West Tisbury senior comes to her office and completes the application process, she sends off an email to the town departments, seeing if there is a need for the senior’s skills and time. Currently the program allows for four senior volunteers to participate in the program during any calendar year. No one is currently taking advantage of the program, however.
At the April 2019 town meeting in West Tisbury, two updates to the senior work-off program will be warrant articles. “If the voters approve, a disabled senior may have a friend do the work for them and the senior will receive the tax abatement,” and the amount that can be earned will increase as the commonwealth raises the minimum wage (rather than being capped at the current $1,500), Logue said. Also, town meeting voters will be asked to approve a new program that will allow veterans (as well as their spouses or widows) to participate in the work-off program. There will be a $1,000 annual earning limit, but no low-income requirement, according to Logue.
“It always needs to be work that needs doing and that no one on the payroll is getting done, or is episodic,“ meaning lawn cutting or snow removal, for example, Logue added.
Edgartown’s Council on Aging, the Anchors, also participates in the program. Anchors’ administrator Paul Mohair told The Times that “maybe one person a year comes in to volunteer.” Most often the interested volunteer/employee is a woman, and the Anchors uses them most often to help out with their popular lunch program, offered twice a week.
“I had a guy come in who expressed an interest in helping out. I created a ‘punch list’ of things to do around here … all kinds of maintenance things. I could not wait for him to come in here, and I don’t think he ever came back,” Mohair said.
Mohair said the Anchors is still “defining how to make it happen,” since to properly utilize the program requires “supervision and management,” or “time, energy and focus.”
“Even data entry … somebody has to go back and be sure that they put the data where it should be,” Mohair said.
There is no senior work-off program in Tisbury, according to the Council on Aging director, Joyce Stiles-Tucker. Stiles-Tucker said that the Tisbury assessors’ office had told her that there were already an ample number of opportunities for seniors to reduce their property tax burdens.