Let’s make a little tax deal

Retirees lend a hand to towns in return for reductions in bills article page player in wide format.
By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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Most Hingham residents don’t know how many hydrants their coastal town has, and they probably don’t have reason to give it much thought.

But 80-year-old Jim Ryan knows exactly how many there are, because he has painted all 60 - a few times, in fact - and is just starting another round through town.

Ryan, a welder by trade and a house painter in his retirement, is assigned to the Hingham Fire Department this fiscal year as part of the town’s Senior Tax Work-off Program. Fire Chief Mark Duff decided Ryan would refurbish the hydrants.

The deal is straightforward: The department supplies the yellow paint, and Ryan wields the brush. In return, he gets a $500 voucher toward this year’s real estate tax bill.

A state law, overseen by the Department of Revenue, allows cities and towns to establish property tax work-off programs for local homeowners over 60 years old. Under the law, communities can set their own rules for how the program works. Amounts are covered through the community’s Overlay Account, which contains money set aside annually to cover anticipated exemptions, abatements and uncollected taxes.

Seniors across Southeastern Massachusetts are now using whatever skills they picked up during their working careers to cover a portion of their property taxes. The tax work-off programs are fairly common, although there are many variations on the same theme.

Some communities, for instance, allow only residents older than 60 to participate, while others start at age 65. Some, like Hingham and Pembroke, set a maximum for tax vouchers at $500. Others, including Marshfield and Duxbury, have a $750 maximum. A number of towns have income restrictions for participants.

Duxbury and Hingham are two of the communities that have had the most experience with tax work-off programs for seniors, having established their own schemes before the 2005 state-created program. The towns simply allocated funds at town meeting to pay the worked-off taxes.

“I think I’ve painted the hydrants four times now, said Ryan, who’s participated in the Hingham work-off program for several years. He has owned his house on Hemlock Road since 1958, on which he pays an annual tax bill of about $3,500. “I get an allowance because I’m a veteran; then I found out about this program through the senior newsletter,’’ he said.

Duff called the tax work-off “a huge benefit,’’ both to the town and the participating seniors. “We don’t even have to check on the work,’’ he said. “We know it will be done right.’’

Hingham Elder Services director Barbara Farnsworth said the town gives 20 seniors similar opportunities to take the edge off their tax bills. “People can do it more than once, but we give priority to people who haven’t done it yet,’’ she said. And interest in the program is rising.

“We’ve had a waiting list for the last year or so,’’ she said.

Participants in work-off programs generally earn pay vouchers at the state’s minimum wage rate, which is currently $8 per hour. All communities require participants to own their own homes in the municipality and to live in them year-round.

In Marshfield, Council on Aging director Carol Hamilton said the number of applicants is definitely on the rise. “I noticed last year that interest in the program was increasing, and we anticipate the response will be even greater this year,’’ she said. “We opened it up on July 1, and we already have 30 people who took out applications.’’

The town has funded 33 openings.

“People love the program, and the departments in town are thrilled to get some help,’’ Hamilton said. The seniors are assigned to the School Department, Water Department, library, and town offices. Anyone on a fixed income can apply.

And, as more baby boomers seek to participate, they are bringing with them more specific talents.

“We’re getting a better trained and better educated work force,’’ said Mansfield Council on Aging director Gale Farrugia, of participants in her town the last couple years. “We have teachers, engineers, and accountants. I try to match the people up to the job.’’

Mansfield’s cap is $750, and as in a number of other communities, Farrugia said it’s not unusual for participants to keep working as volunteers even after they’ve reached the voucher limit. Last year, Farrugia was able to put on 33 workers; she has just begun taking applications for this year.

Nancy Jacobson, who has owned a home in Pembroke for the last 40 years, worked at the town’s center library last year to earn $500 toward her $3,300 annual tax bill.

“I’m a widow, so this program was great,’’ Jacobson said. “It was very pleasant. It’s not a pressure thing. I’d go in for two or three hours a day and put books in order.’’ Her schedule was flexible, she said, and her only disappointment was that the town only allows seniors to participate in the program once.

Last year, the Pembroke Council on Aging was allowed to fill 15 slots, but this year, the number has been reduced to 10, due to budget cuts, according to council director Mary Willis.

In Wareham, some participants say they’re getting more than a tax voucher for their efforts: Eileen Morrissey, who works as an attendant at the town’s public beach, said she also gets a tan in the bargain.

“I’m a real beach bum, anyway,’’ said the 65-year-old. Her job entails checking stickers on cars in the beach parking lot to make sure they belong to town residents. For her effort, she gets $750 taken off her yearly $2,300 real estate tax bill.

The tax work-off program is very popular, says Wareham Council on Aging director Marcia Griswold. “We have people of all ages, well into their 80s,’’ said Griswold, who has 38 people working off a portion of their tax bills this year.

Christine Legere can be reached at

How the senior tax work-off program works
▸ Vouchers are given toward taxes for up to $750

▸ Pay rate is minimum wage - $8 an hour

▸ Participants must own a house in town and live in it year-round

▸ The work-off vouchers are not considered income or wages for the purposes of state income tax withholding, but the abatement is considered taxable for federal income tax purposes

▸ Some communities have additional rules:

MARSHFIELD: No income cap but must be on a fixed income

PEMBROKE: No repeat applicants allowed

DUXBURY: Minimum age for participation is 65

WAREHAM: Minimum age for participation is 60