Policy for Late Taxes On Strafford Warning

Strafford Town Meeting will be held on Tuesday, March 4, at 9 a.m. in the Town House to act upon 14 warning articles. The school meeting will be held in the Town House on the same day at 1 p.m. to consider six warning articles.

Strafford — Voters at Town Meeting will consider changing Strafford’s current system of assessing and collecting delinquent taxes.

The effort to put the articles on the warning was led by Jessica Tidman and Tom Scull, a married couple who missed the deadline to pay taxes in December and had to pay interest and a late penalty close to $1,000.

As it now stands, the town can impose a one-time penalty of up to 8 percent on late payers, and as in other Vermont towns, the delinquent tax collector keeps the penalty in lieu of a salary or stipend.

Articles 6 and 7 on the warning ask residents whether the 8 percent penalty on delinquent taxes should be abolished, and whether the delinquent tax collector should be paid a salary or stipend rather than the 8 percent penalty.

Article 8 asks whether the interest on delinquent taxes should be set at 1 percent for the first three months after a missed deadline, and at 1.5 percent thereafter. And Article 9 asks whether the town should allow a grace period of seven days after the tax due date in which no penalty or interest would be assessed.

“My goal was to get it on the agenda,” said Tidman, and “my assumption is the townsfolk will work through it. My understanding was that many people didn’t understand the way our system worked.”

The larger issue, she said, is whether residents realized that the 8 percent penalty went to the tax collector, not the town. The system has been in a place for a long time, she said, but that “doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.”

However, a delinquent tax penalty survey conducted by the town office, the results of which are posted on the town web site, showed that 74 percent of 164 respondents were aware that there was an 8 percent penalty on late payments for the second tax installment paid in December; 25 percent of respondents didn’t know about the penalty.

In town business, according to the Selectboard report, the 2014 operating budget is 1.5 percent more than the 2013 operating budget.

The town and highways budgets this year are over budget by about $155,000, mainly due to weather conditions last winter, expenses from road reconstruction on the Justin Morrill Highway and the cost of materials such as sand, salt, gravel and sodium chloride.

The total proposed budget, which includes the General Fund and the Highway Fund, is estimated at $1.1 million, which includes two bond issues for work on the town garage and on the town highways that were already voted on and approved. As a result, the town is asking to appropriate $927,768 in tax revenue to defray expenses, said Town Clerk Lisa Kendall. This is an increase from last year of 6.8 cents per $100 of valuation. This would be a $171 increase in taxes on a house valued at $250,000, she said.

Another article on the warning, brought by Sarah Root, a member of the School Board, which operates with a five-person board, is to increase the number of seats on the Selectboard. A previous attempt to expand the number of seats on the Selectboard from three to five was defeated in 2011, Kendall said.

“What I think works so well on the (School) board is that the more people you have coming in with their own ideas, thoughts and perspectives to a decision or conversation, the wider the scope you can get and the better decision you can make,” Root said. “The other thing is that the work of the School Board with five people on it is incredibly time-consuming, and I can’t imagine taking that work we have and putting it on three people.”

Another issue in play, said Selectman Roderick Maclay, is that “it’s very difficult today to get people to volunteer for anything, and on the Selectboard you’ve got to put time in. Some people don’t want to do that. They want to come to Strafford and say what a lovely town, don’t bother me.”

One of the last articles on the petition asks voters to consider opposing the transportation of tar sands oil through Vermont and to ask Congress and the state to undertake thorough environmental impact reviews of any tar sands oil pipeline proposals.

Eleven town offices are up for election, including two Selectboard seats. One of the seats is for a full three-year term, filling the seat held by Victoria Lloyd, and the other is for a two-year term that will fill a seat being vacated by Sally Hull after one year of service. Maclay said he knows of no one who has declared for the seats.

However, Lisa Kendall, the town clerk, posted a message on the Strafford listserv in which she endorsed Brent Cadwell, who, according to her note, had expressed interest in an open seat on the Selectboard. This provoked some discussion on the listserv about whether it was appropriate for Kendall to send a note from the town clerk’s email address.

Kendall said that she had not signed the note as the town clerk, but as a personal endorsement.

“If I do it again I’ll probably use my personal email,” she said, adding that she has not yet decided how to respond to the messages on the listserv.

Other seats up for election include one lister and one auditor.

The 2014-2015 school budget is estimated at just under $3.2 million, said School Board chairman Paul Perkins, an increase of $186,019 over last year’s budget. The residential tax rate would increase from $1.27 to $1.36 per $100 of valuation. For a home valued at $250,000, the increase would mean about $225 in additional school taxes for homeowners who don’t qualify for Vermont’s income sensitivity program.

The two significant cost drivers in the school budget are special education and secondary tuition costs, Perkins said. Special education rose by $31,852 and the secondary tuition costs rose by almost $118,865 to $984,318, Perkins said. Some of this is due to an increase in the student population.

“We had a bump last year and we have a bump coming in this year,” Perkins said. “If you exclude the secondary tuition and special ed, then we’re looking at a $35,000 increase over last year, or 2.2 percent, and the rest are really costs beyond our control.”

The third cost driver, he said, is increased health insurance costs and the projected increase in teacher salaries, which are now negotiated at the supervisory union level.

After a series of public meetings, the school decided to extend the kindergarten day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Previously the kindergarten day ran from 8 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on Monday through Thursday; and 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Friday.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com .