Joy and relief marked the start of the month as the state finally began operating with an approved budget 123 days after the start of the fiscal year. For towns like Madison, which received a more modest cut in state revenue than once anticipated, things were looking fairly rosy.
However, as residents and officials examined the massive two–year budget, it became clear that while some state aid programs went up, programs funding rent and property tax assistance for elderly and disabled residents were either cut from the budget or not properly allocated.
For Madison—a town with a relatively low poverty level—the numbers are not as alarming as for some other towns in the state, but officials at the Madison Department of Senior Services said the uncertainty surrounding some of these programs has led to growing concerns among some residents.
Confusion About Renter’s Rebate Program
For those who rent, the state offers the renter’s rebate program: Low-income seniors and the disabled are sent a check by the state each October to help offset the costs of rent. The low-income elderly and disabled residents eligible and qualified for the rent rebate program normally receive their rent rebate checks from the State of Connecticut by Nov. 1. This year, the rent rebate program is funded in the state budget, but how the money is to be distributed is unclear. That confusion has led to late checks for program participants.
According to a letter sent out from the State Office of Policy and Management (OPM) on Nov. 2, the recently approved budget has allocated money for the program, but the budget language shifts the responsibility of distributing the rebate payments from the state to the towns.
“Under this law, the shift in responsibility is not accompanied by any state funding because the General Assembly stranded $13 million a year at OPM without providing the agency the ability to distribute these funds either to individuals or to the towns that must now administer the program,” the letter states. “In short, OPM is no longer authorized to administer the program and no longer has the authority to process payments for this purpose.”
According to a brief provided by the Office of Fiscal Analysis (OFA), the estimated fiscal year 2017 rebate for Madison is $46,496. The brief explains while there is money allocated for the program, it may not be enough to cover 100 percent of the rebates over the next two years.
However, state legislators said the problem with the rebate program is a matter of communication.
Deputy House Republican leader and State Representative Vincent Candelora (R-86) said the intention was never to eliminate the program, but the timing of the October payment may have been messed up due to the timing of the budget passage.
“The rent checks go out in October so the rent checks should have gone out prior to the budget being adopted and I think there might have been a belief that some of those rental payments were released but they weren’t because the governor’s office didn’t release them because there was no revenue and technically no budget,” he said. “We are going back to look and clarify how that program is to be administered and to restore that.”
The House is expected to discuss the language adjustments this week. While individuals on the program are currently short a check, Candelora said the intention is to get that late check to residents.
“The check that normally goes out in October would be coming out in November instead so we are looking at this as being a delay as opposed to elimination,” said Candelora.
Circuit Breaker Program Cut
While the Renter’s Rebate Program may be easy to fix, the Property Tax Relief Elderly Circuit Breaker Program may not be. The state’s Circuit Breaker Program reimburses towns the cost of providing a property tax credit to income-qualified elderly and disabled homeowners. The goal of the program is to help the elderly poor and disabled stay in their homes. The credits are assessed for the prior year’s property tax obligation. The Town Assessor’s office takes and reviews Circuit Breaker applications and the supporting documentation to verify each property owner’s eligibility.
Madison Director of Senior Services Austin Hall said cuts to the program affects 190 households in town for a total of $105,415. Hall said cutting programs like this affects “the neediest seniors in our community.”
In the letter sent by OPM, it’s expressly clear that there is no funding in the state budget for payments to municipalities under this program. However, State Representative Noreen Kokoruda (R-101) said while this program is no longer funded, Madison does have other programs that can meet this need.
“This program is a state-run program but Madison has three other programs—we have a rebate program, we have a deferral program, and we have the tax freeze,” she said. “I think what is going to have to happen is the town is going to have to sit down and look at all of the programs and maybe incorporate this in but they are going to have to make a decision on what this is going to look like.”
Medicare Savings Program
While it has very little to do with town government, the new state budget also takes a big whack at the Medicare Savings Program (MSP). The program is a Medicaid-funded program that helps cover hospitalization, medical, and prescription drug costs. Starting Jan. 1, 2018, the state is lowering the eligibility thresholds in an effort to save about $70 million.
The old threshold for low-income seniors and the disabled participation in the MSP was $25,447. The state budget’s new threshold for help is half that annual income or $12,060 or less per year. The new thresholds are estimated to cut help for more than 68,000 seniors and disabled individuals in the state. Hall said the state estimates 233 people in Madison will be affected by these cuts.
Since the average monthly Social Security payment in the U.S. is about $1,300 per month, the average annual Social Security income for a retiree would be $15,600. Many seniors rely entirely on the Social Security payments to live. Under this budget, those low-income seniors and disabled getting the average payment would no longer qualify for the MSP benefits.
Hall said the Medicare open enrollment for 2018 coverage year ends on Thursday, Dec. 7 and it is unclear how or when affected residents will be informed of the changes. Hall said seniors are currently in the middle of reviewing their health insurance and said senior services is doing all it can to help residents through this uncertainty.
“Not only are we meeting with folks to look over their health insurance, we now have an influx of folks who will be affected by this cut,” he said. “We are trying to educate and look at insurance with the help vs. without the help for the next year.”
The State Department of Social Services (DSS) website says DSS is in the process of compiling information for those residents who will be affected by the eligibility change.
For more information, visit portal.ct.gov/dss/Health-And- Home-Care/Medicare-Savings- Program/Medicare-Savings- Program.
For seniors with questions or concerns, contact the Senior Center at 203-245-5627.