(This story was first published in the March 6, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
Debra Hart works 10 hours a week at an animal care facility in Windsor and she receives social security for a back injury. She pays $150 each month in property taxes for her home in Hartland.
It’s part of a payment plan she’s worked out with the town. She said for the first time in years she and her husband have been able to pay their taxes this year — but her name is still published in the annual town report for back taxes that the two have owed since 2011.
Hart’s name is published along side a list of 46 other people who owe a combined $122,887.99 in Hartland’s town report.
“We think it’s a bit of an incentive to get people to pay,” Town Manager Bob Stacey said of publishing names.
It’s a choice that towns like Killington, Barnard and Bridgewater have also made, either to hasten payment or to keep the tradition.
“That information has been put in town reports for many years,” said Joni Kennedy, the delinquent tax collector in Bridgewater. “I think people do take that into consideration when they’re paying their taxes.”
But some towns have recently begun to stop publishing names after a 2011 Vermont Supreme Court case found income sensitivity adjustment information was confidential and should not be disclosed by municipalities as part of the tax adjustment process, according to Director of Property Valuation and Review for the Vermont Department of Taxes Bill Johnson.
Publishing the names in town reports is OK, he said, but, “It’s when you go beyond that, it starts getting increasingly dicey.”
“Towns often don’t like that, sometimes what they want to do is provide some amount on how much the delinquency is,” he said.
Most towns continue to publish names but omit how much each person owes.
“It’s a powerful tool in getting people to pay their delinquent taxes as soon as possible,” Johnson said. “I think that’s why most of the towns choose to do that, on some levels that’s fair. It’s certainly the general belief that it’s helpful.”
Woodstock hasn’t published tax information for two years and West Windsor doesn’t publish the delinquent taxes, either. West Windsor town has “a handful” of people who owe about $38,000.
“If we started it back in the 1800s then maybe we would but we don’t,” Town Clerk Cathy Archibald said. “We don’t think it’s anybody’s business.
“Chances are by the time you publish your town report in January, by the time town meeting gets here, half of them have already paid anyway,” she said.
This was the first year Pomfret hasn’t published names in its town report.
“People thought it was unnecessary to expose people that way,” Auditor Laura Kent said. “There were complaints when they were published, we have not had a single complaint without publishing.
“We didn’t see any need to put them in the town report,” Kent said.
Pomfret voters were asked at town meeting how they feel about it and nearly all of them raised their hands in support, except Ona Chase.
“They’ve always printed the names of them in town so I don’t know why they’re changing it all of a sudden,” Chase said.
There is $14,149 in delinquent taxes in Barnard, $103,884.94 in Bridgewater, and $68,495 in Reading according to this year’s town reports. Killington has about $511,531 in delinquent taxes of the $13,309,210 that was billed in 2013, due to second homeowners and businesses who wait until the start of the ski season to pay taxes, according to Town Manager Seth Webb.
About $180,000 has been paid since the first of the year, Webb said.
“This is something that’s been done for years and years,” Vermont League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Steven Jeffrey said.
Individuals have little say on how their name gets used, but under state law, if individuals are exempt from penalty fees and interest, they can notify the town by writing that they should not be listed.
Also, sometimes people pay after the town report is published.
“You’re being embarrassed despite having made the payments, so there’s some downside to it,” Jeffrey said. “A number of towns believe it’s another arrow in the quiver of making sure people pay their property taxes.”
But for taxpayers, it’s “further humiliation.”
A Reading man, who declined to be identified, said he put his home on the market two years ago because he couldn’t pay the taxes.
“It’s too onerous,” he said.
He said having his name published in the town report was “a further slap in the face.
“Right now my sole income is from social security,” he said. “My taxes are one-third of my total annual income. That is outrageous, it makes it impossible to pay the taxes.”
This year, Woodstock had one of its lowest numbers yet. The town had collected about $15.8 million in taxes according to this year’s town report, and it had about $463,000 in delinquent taxes, as of May 4, when taxes were due.
But since that date, the amount of delinquent taxes has trimmed to $122,301 — owed by about 90 people.
“They all have a separate story,” Pitts said. “Some people are paying, some people are ignoring us.”
Sometimes it causes a ripple effect on the budget.
“You’ve got to just hope and pray that you get enough in over the course of the year,” Town Manager Phil Swanson said.
Woodstock collects taxes twice a year — in November and May. The town sends out fliers to remind people of what they owe. If the town continues to not receive money, Swanson threatens a tax sale.
“That’s our ultimate enforcement power on the collection of taxes and that’s a very strong enforcement for people,” he said.
The town also utilizes the mortgage holders and enforces a penalty.
There is an interest rate penalty and an automatic 8 percent penalty for delinquent taxes, amounting to about a 24.5 percent interest and penalty increase in the first year.
Hartland collected about $30,000 in taxes last year.
The rising cost of rent and electricity has made the tax payments burdensome for Hart. Of the $150 a month that Hart pays, she said she pays more than $50 for interest and about $50 for the penalty.
According to the Town Report, she and her husband owe about $531 from 2011. Hart owes about $1,581 from last year.
“I’m doing the best I can do,” she said.