AHS Construction Photo

The new Attleboro High School is going up on Rathbun Willard Drive. It’s also sending property taxes up, and the impact on seniors has officials worried.

ATTLEBORO — The chairman of a city council committee looking into ways to alleviate the growing burden of real estate taxes on seniors plans to get some kind of a freeze on the books by the end of the year.

Councilor Todd Kobus, chairman of the senior tax abatement review committee, said the need is crucial.

With taxes skyrocketing and incomes level for most seniors, their ability to hold onto their houses is often threatened, he said.

“Our goal is to get something enacted this year which will help seniors stay in their homes,” Kobus said at a meeting Wednesday.

The committee, which includes Kobus and councilors Peter Blais and Jay Dilisio, who was absent, met with Council on Aging Director Madeleine McNielly, members of the COA board and state Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro.

Also in attendance was at-large Councilor Ty Waterman.

Blais and Waterman are both seniors.

McNielly said there are about 3,900 seniors recorded as owning homes in the city, but that number is sure to go up after a “needs assessment” study by Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston is completed later this year.

With the numbers of seniors, those 60 and over, exploding because of the aging baby boomer population, the city undertook the $35,000 study to determine how it has to adjust to accommodate what is sure to be an increasing demand for services.

And with many seniors on fixed incomes, whether Social Security benefits or a pension, rising costs outdistance any cost of living increases they get and threaten their ability to live in the home they’ve bought and paid for years ago, the officials said.

In Attleboro that situation is exacerbated by a tax override to pay for the city’s new $260 million high school. It has increased real estate taxes significantly.

That override, which was passed by voters overwhelmingly, sparked the formation of the committee. Under its former chairperson, Diana Holmes, it took three actions in December to assist seniors.

Last month Hawkins and Republican colleague David DeCoste, R-Norwell, submitted a senior real estate tax freeze bill to the Legislature.

Hawkins said the Legislature’s legal counsel vetted its wording and confirmed its constitutionality.

Hawkins said he decided to submit the bill after hearing from numerous seniors that they need help during his door-to-door campaign. But he is not certain the bill will get a vote this year.

But so far it seems to be getting bipartisan support, which is a good sign, he said.

Meanwhile, Hawkins said the city could submit a “home rule petition” that could get quicker action since it only applies to Attleboro. His bill would apply to the whole state.

But the petition should be submitted before summer because it’s an election year and action on Beacon Hill slows down in the last half of the year, Hawkins said.

Kobus said his goal would be to get the latest data on city seniors in April or sooner to better understand the scope of the problem.

He would then create the home rule petition, based on the Hawkins/DeCoste bill, have a public hearing if needed and get it voted out of committee with a vote of the full council in May. That would give the Legislature time to vote on it.

Kobus will also seek information on how a tax freeze would affect other taxpayers and the city budget.

Census estimates for 2020 put the city’s senior population, those 60 and older, at about 13,000, or 28 percent of the total.

In 2010 the senior population was 7,901, or 18 percent of the total, as the first wave of the baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, became seniors. The generation is one of the nation’s biggest, at 76 million.

The first of that generation became seniors in 2006 and the numbers have been on the increase ever since, straining councils on aging and baby boomer budgets.

Today the oldest baby boomers are 73, the youngest are 55. In five years the entire generation will be seniors.

COA board member Frank Cook said it’s important to keep seniors in their homes to maintain a diversity of ages in the city.

An outflow of seniors and an influx of younger people could stress the school system and the overall budget.

In December the council made three adjustments to its program of tax breaks for seniors.

The first increases income limits from $20,000 to $58,000 for senior taxpayers who want to defer payment of taxes for a year or more.

The second reduces the interest rate from 8 percent to 2.5 percent on deferred taxes and the third increases from 120 to 150 the number of seniors who will be allowed to participate in a tax work-off program.

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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