Island seniors face tax disparity


To the Editor:

This letter was sent to state lawmakers representing the Islands.

As the Island coordinator for the volunteer AARP Tax Aide program for nearly 20 years, and as a retired tax attorney, I am writing to draw your attention to a regional inequity of the tax assistance afforded seniors under the application of Massachusetts General Law chapter 62 Section (6)(k) — a provision commonly known as the Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit. Increasingly, because of high real estate assessments on Martha’s Vineyard, seniors who would otherwise benefit from the Circuit Breaker Tax Credit are ineligible.


Legislative background

In 1999 the Massachusetts legislature enacted a provision known as the Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit, which was intended to help older adults stay in their homes despite rising property taxes. The law contains several specific requirements, but in general, residents 65 and older, within certain income limits, may receive a refundable tax credit when their property taxes and 50 percent of water and sewer charges exceed 10 percent of their income. 

Annually, the Department of Revenue adjusts the permissible income levels, the benefit amounts, and the maximum assessed value of the senior’s residence. For the 2023 tax year, the Department of Revenue released TIR 23-11, providing a maximum Circuit Breaker benefit for tax year 2023 for seniors with income below $69,000 (single filers), or below $103,000 (joint filers). However, the main problem for Islanders is that this benefit is not available if the assessed value of the property exceeded $1,025,000 as of Jan. 1, 2023.


Regional disparity

The residents of Dukes County, despite modest income and disproportionately high property taxes, are increasingly unlikely to receive any benefit from the Massachusetts Circuit Breaker because of the extraordinarily high assessments for Dukes County real estate. The average property assessment in Martha’s Vineyard exceeds the state average, thereby putting the Senior Circuit Breaker Credit out of reach for Island seniors who would otherwise qualify. 

In August 2023, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) published a study, “State of Housing on Martha’s Vineyard.” In this study, Laura Silber, the MVC’s housing planner, revealed that the average cost of housing on Martha’s Vineyard was $2.1 million (having doubled in 10 years), and the median home price of $1.5 million had increased 250 percent in 10 years. These numbers far exceed the prescribed limit for Circuit Breaker relief set by the Department of Revenue. Yet there is a significant population of seniors on Martha’s Vineyard who struggle to live in the family homestead, and now cannot take advantage of legislation which was aimed at keeping seniors in their homes.


Possible solution

How can this problem be addressed? There is precedent under M.G.L. that recognizes the regional disparity of the cost of living by county. The Massachusetts Individual Mandate (M.G.L. chapter 111M), requiring adults to carry credible health insurance if it is affordable, is administered by the Department of Revenue through the submission of Schedule HC- Health Care form. Instructions for Schedule HC are annually adjusted for cost-of-living changes, and reflect regional disparities in determining the affordability of health insurance premiums. If the Department of Revenue could similarly recognize this regional cost-of-living disparity as it applies to real estate assessments under M.G.L. chapter 62 section 6(k), this would enable the legislation to achieve its intended purpose of keeping Island seniors of modest income in their homes. 


Dorothy Dropick