Firefighters to city: Be there for our surviving spouses

A group of Shelton firefighters had a message for the aldermen: Don’t put a price on our lives by setting a limit on the property tax benefit for spouses of firefighters who die in the line of duty.

The Board of Aldermen is considering raising the benefit, in the form of a property tax abatement, from $4,000 to $5,000 a year.

But the idea of increasing the amount appears to have drawn attention to the fact that such a limit exists.

“You’re setting a price on what my life is worth to my family,” said Jack Brand Sr., who has been a Pine Rock Park volunteer firefighter for 35 years.

“If you want to do something for my wife if I go down, don’t make her pay taxes,” Brand said during a recent public hearing on proposed ordinance changes at City Hall.

Bickering over pennies

Brand said debating where to establish such a limit was bickering over “pennies.”

Justin Sabatino, a Pine Rock volunteer firefighter and city fire commissioner, agreed.

“If we die in the line of duty we don’t want our spouses to have any burden,” Sabatino said. “We’re here speaking for our spouses in advance.”

He said it would be wrong for a firefighter’s surviving spouse to potentially have to move from a house for financial reasons. “That spouse might have trouble paying their taxes,” Sabatino said.

Sabatino noted volunteer firefighters in Shelton aren’t eligible for an annual property tax break as they are in many other towns, and few qualify for the minimal pension payments. “If someone dies, we want to do as much as we can for them,” he said.

The firefighters also stressed they appreciate that the property tax abatement for surviving spouses exists in Shelton, and that aldermen may raise it.

Amount has not changed

Aldermanic President John F. Anglace Jr. said increasing the tax abatement for surviving spouses to $5,000 “more accurately reflects the average taxes paid in the city.”

The spousal abatement ordinance went into effect in 2004 and the $4,000 annual amount has not changed since then, Anglace said.

Would ensure fairness

In reaction to the comments by firefighters, Anglace said setting some kind of a limit is a way to ensure fairness between survivors.

Without a limit, he said, someone receiving a $2,000 annual property tax benefit could potentially complain it’s unfair when compared to a spouse who is getting a $10,000 a year abatement (with the different amounts being due to the value of their homes).

“You’re creating all kinds on inequities,” Anglace said.

He also pointed out no one had been complaining about the current amount.

Town must step up

A volunteer White Hills firefighter said it shouldn’t matter to town officials, or anyone else, “if you live in a fancy house” and normally pay a lot of taxes. If someone dies in the line of duty as a firefighter, the town should be there for his or her family.

“A lot of us put a lot of time in,” the firefighter said.

More research suggested

Alderman Jack Finn suggested more research should be done to see what the property tax abatement limits — if any — are in other towns.

Finn said without the efforts of the volunteers at Shelton’s four fire companies, all city residents would have to pay more in taxes to have a department with paid firefighters. He estimated that potential cost at $6 million to $7 million a year.

Commitment to community

Brand said the fact that firefighters haven’t complained about the limit in the past says something about their commitment to the community. “We were thankful when you did it,” he said of when the original ordinance.

Sabatino noted he has attended the funerals of firefighters, and was a young firefighter when volunteer firefighter Daniel E. Wannagot died on a fire call in Shelton in 1991.

Public officials are always asking what they can do for firefighting volunteers in their communities, he said, suggesting an unlimited property tax abatement would be a step in the right direction.

“We don’t want to have to fight for this,” Sabatino said.

Another chance in ordinance

The aldermen also may change the language of the firefighter surviving spouse ordinance so it would apply to someone who also is a city of Shelton employee.

Municipal employees now are exempt from being eligible for the survivors’ benefit, and Anglace said that doesn’t seem right to him.