Friday, February 27, 2004
The senior tax voucher program — it's time to do more
Two years ago Town Meeting voted to create an innovative program to give senior citizens relief from rising taxes. Called the senior tax voucher program, it allows qualifying residents to work part-time in town government in exchange for credit toward their real estate tax. After two years, the program has been demonstrated to work, and now it should be expanded in order to help more seniors.
The program was given $5,000 in funding this year and last. Participants work for $6.75 in credit per hour, up to a maximum tax credit of $500. At this level only 10 people can enroll in the voucher program each year.
It made sense to start with a small budget until it was known whether or not the part-time work would be truly productive, and whether many Carlisle seniors were interested in participating. According to Council on Aging Coordinator Susan Evans, "It's been very successful. Every department has expressed satisfaction."
Participants have helped with a variety of areas in town, including the Building, Fire and Recreation Departments, the Assessors Office, the Town Clerk, Town Accountant, Town Administrator, Tax Collector, the Council on Aging, Library, and the school. Evans believes the program could be successfully enlarged to enroll 15 seniors per year. This would provide enough slots to serve those currently on the program's waiting list.
The program's effective cost is less than $5,000 because tasks performed by the seniors reduce the workload of the town's paid staff. Also, Carlisle saves money when it enables senior citizens to stay in town, rather than sell their homes to young families with school-aged children. Even without these reasons, the program is serving a legitimate need of the senior population and deserves additional funding in the next fiscal year.
If not here, where? If not now, when?
Let's cut to the chase: affordable housing has been on the table in Carlisle for twenty years. Yet in that time, despite the Herculean efforts of dedicated citizens who have developed plans for many sites, not one unit of affordable housing has been built. The reasons for opposition vary, but they generally boil down to NIMBY, "not in my back yard." Well, everywhere in Carlisle is adjacent to someone's back yard. There is not now, nor will there ever be, a perfect site where everyone will be happy with an affordable housing development.
So, do we give up or do we try to craft a best-case scenario within the constraints of available land?
I do not think giving up is the answer, but let's at least consider some of its consequences. The first is the stick the legislature has crafted to goad us into action, 40B comprehensive permits, under which developers override local zoning regulations and build housing with limited citizen input. Do you really want no control over where denser developments go? If you like your chances in this game of Russian roulette, figuring they won't hit next door, note that fifty (yes 50!) Laurel Hollows (8-unit developments on 4 acres) would still leave Carlisle vulnerable to more.
Why is the 40B stick necessary? Because Massachusetts has a severe housing shortage, especially for those of moderate incomes. What makes Carlisle so special that we shouldn't make an effort to meet some of this need? Do we really want to continue on our leave-it-to-the-market do-nothing path to become an economically homogeneous, elite community whose teachers, town employees, and others who serve us come from farther and farther away, like the day laborers who tend the gardens and clean the homes in California's gated communities?
It is morally wrong to sidestep these questions. This is not just the rant of a bleeding-heart liberal. Our Republican governor, who, according to an aide quoted in the Globe, "feels passionately about getting more housing built," has recently pledged $100 million to build mixed-income housing in Massachusetts.
Yes, siting affordable housing and maybe a soccer field on the Benfield land would put much more of the burden on South Street residents than on me. They will also get over 100 acres of permanently protected conservation land (including open space and conservation-restricted acreage) in their neighborhood. Is this a fair trade-off? Are there other parcels in Carlisle where as good a trade-off could be made? In the current clash of wills, can we hash out a solution that will achieve the greatest aggregate good for the community, including those who cannot currently afford to live here?
South Street residents are angry they weren't consulted sooner. My understanding is this was regrettably unavoidable. But there's no going back. Moving forward, the best solution will come from a collective process involving us all that is "informed, deliberative, and morally challenging," to use a phrase from Eric Freyfogle's book, The Land We Share: Private Property and the Common Good. Freyfogle counsels "engagement" in the search for common ground. As a member of Carlisle's planning community, I look forward to working together with my neighbors on South Street (and I like to think that Carlisle is small enough and still enough of a community that we can all call each other neighbors) to craft a workable solution that benefits all, maximizing the buffer zone for abutters, preserving the glorious upper field, and building some affordable housing that could ultimately benefit the environment with denser development that is actually less stressful on natural resources than single-family homes. Let's get to work.
© 2004 The