GROTON -- Bent on turning elderly volunteers working a few hours each week in order to get a break on ever rising property taxes into regular employees, the Internal Revenue Service has mandated that all such workers be charged income tax on their meager earnings.
Such was the news from town accountant Patricia DuFresne given to the Board of Selectmen at their meeting of Feb. 12.
According to DuFresne, although the state government still considers the $500 abatement on property taxes earned by the town's senior citizens as part of its Senior Work Off Program as nontaxable, the IRS has decided that it constitutes income and needs to be taxed.
As a result, the 38 seniors currently enrolled in the program (which has them working at town offices filing records and stuffing envelopes) will now need to be handled as wage-earning employees instead of volunteers, with all of the red tape that goes with it from filling out forms and enduring identity checks to being issued W-2 forms.
DuFresne told selectmen that the town had no option but to comply with the demand.
In order to have $500 shaved off their property taxes, seniors who volunteer for the program need to be at least 60 years old and earn no more than $65,000 a year for singles and $70,000 for couples.
Adding insult to injury, after the volunteers become employees, they will not even be earning the full $500 abatement they had to start with. Concerned about the seniors and sympathetic about the very reason why they choose to volunteer, selectmen wondered aloud at the heartless behavior of the IRS while mulling over increasing the abatement earnings to $550 so that the income tax deduction would not affect the seniors' bottom line.
Another option, offered DuFresne, would simply be to drop the whole program and simply have Town Meeting vote to grant all seniors meeting the requirements a $500 abatement the way it has for the blind and veterans.
Board of Assessors member Rena Swezey, however, balked at the suggestion, saying that giving the abatement to every senior in town and not just the handful who volunteered could put a crimp in the town's revenue stream.
Another solution might be to lower the maximum yearly earning requirement and use the savings for fewer volunteers to pay for the extra taxes demanded by the IRS.
Frustrated at the whole situation, board Chairman Stuart Schulman asked Town Manager Mark Haddad if a complaint could be sent to Sens. Nicki Tsongas and Elizabeth Warren to see if they could do anything, but Haddad doubted they could.
In the end, selectmen asked DuFresne to meet with the volunteers to find out how they feel about the new situation and how many would remain in the program if they had to become straight employees of the town.
Afterwards, the town accountant would meet again with the board, at which point selectmen would decide on what to do next.
Also at the Feb. 12 meeting, the board:
* Voted to set the date for annual Town Meeting for Monday, April 22, with April 23 and the following Monday, April 29, for second and third sessions if needed.
* Voted to move the site of town elections for precincts 2 and 3 from the Middle School to the former Prescott School. The move came after Town Clerk Michael Bouchard brought the issue of changing locations to the board following the tragic shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Thinking it more prudent to hold the event away from vulnerable students, Bouchard suggested a number of alternative sites, including the former Country Club, the Town Hall or the Prescott School. Of the sites, the Country Club had handicapped accessibility issues and Town Hall was problematic due to lack of parking and having to hold elections on two floors and possibly interfering with the activities of Town Hall workers. Of the three sites, selectmen decided that Prescott was the best, with ample parking and space for voting as well as accessibility. Their decision, however, was tentative depending on how the school works out in upcoming elections.
* Voted to appoint Haddad to the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District's Business Manager Search Committee. The committee is being formed with the aim of finding a replacement for Gerry Martin, the district's departing director of business and finance. Haddad served on a previous committee that chose Martin three years ago.
* Learned that the ET & L Corp. had been signed to conduct the job of removing and replacing Fitch's Bridge. Appropriations for the work were approved at a special Town Meeting with the existing bridge scheduled to be removed on May 1. According to Haddad, from that point, plans for its replacement and delivery and installation of the new span would take another 10 weeks. The town manager guessed that the whole project should be completed by July 31.
* Learned that TLT had won the bidding process to become general contractor for construction of the new $7,734,000 Center Fire Station along Farmers Row. Haddad told selectmen that a contract with the company is expected to be signed over the next 30 days and assured them that the town's interests would be adequately protected. Adding to the town manager's confidence in TLT was the fact that the company's president would be actively involved in day-to-day operations during construction. Work on the new building is expected to begin in the spring.