Jim Kenyon: A Taxing Deadline in Strafford

When Tom Scull arrived at Strafford’s town office at about 5:45 p.m. on Dec. 4, he was surprised to find the door locked and the lights turned off.

It was his recollection that Town Clerk and Treasurer Lisa Kendall often stayed open until 6 p.m. on the day that property taxes were due.

On Dec. 4, however, Kendall closed at 5:30 to get to the bank that was open until 6. Kendall didn’t want to leave a “pile of cash” in the office overnight. (You’d be surprised at how many people pay their property taxes in cash, she told me.)

A few days or so before the tax deadline, Kendall posted the closing time change on the town’s listserve.

Notices were also put up at the town office and the post office.

Neither Scull nor his wife, Jessica Tidman, got the word, however.

With the town office closed, Scull stopped at his neighbor Tori Lloyd’s house. Scull gave Lloyd, who serves on the Selectboard, the check for nearly $10,000 that he’d been carrying around for a couple of days to cover the taxes on the three properties that he and Tidman own in town. (In Strafford, property taxes are paid in two equal installments, the first due in September.)

The next morning, Lloyd brought the check with her when she stopped by the town office.

End of story?

Not by a long shot.

A few days later, Scull and Tidman were informed in a letter from the town that they needed to pay a penalty and interest totaling close to $1,000 for missing the deadline. In Vermont, communities can impose a one-time penalty of up to 8 percent on overdue property taxes. Towns also charge interest, which in Strafford can be as much as 16.5 percent annually.

I talked with Scull, an employee benefits consultant, who acknowledged that a combination of procrastination and forgetfulness got the best of him. But Scull, 45, hoped the rules could be more flexible in the small town, where he’s lived since 1999.

In a letter circulated around town last month, Tidman wrote, “We certainly thought that since some people (we were not the only ones to hand in our taxes late due to the time change) were caught unaware regarding the time change, that some leeway might be given.”

As the news spread, the town listserve heated up.

“The current rule, strictly enforced, imposes a huge penalty for a payment of taxes that is one day, one hour, or even one minute late, regardless of the circumstances,” wrote Steve Dycus. “This rule certainly is efficient from the town’s point of view, since it requires no appeal to common sense and no room for flexibility to achieve justice. But it is also small-minded and mean-spirited.”

Nellie Pennington disagreed. “Please, folks, take responsibility for getting your taxes paid on time, and if you’re going to leave it until the last minute (which, really, you don’t have to do), don’t blame others for your failure to double-check the office hours …”

At next month’s Town Meeting, the debate figures to continue. Strafford voters will decide whether the town should “collect no interest or penalty on taxes paid up to seven business days after the tax due date.”

The small change of hours at the town office is one thing, but to me there’s a much bigger rub: In Strafford, like many Vermont towns, the elected collector of delinquent taxes pockets the 8 percent penalty in lieu of a salary.

Some call it working on commission. I’d say it’s more along the lines of bounty hunting. It doesn’t seem right that a tax collector’s wages should be based on the misery or mistakes of other people in town.

Communities across the state are going away from this system, said Charles Merriman, a Montpelier attorney who specializes in municipal government law. They’re keeping the 8 percent penalty in town coffers and paying the tax collector a fixed salary.

In Thetford, for example, the Selectboard sets the salary of Jill Graff, who is also the town treasurer. Last year, she made $8,300. If Graff had been paid on commission, she would have earned more than $20,000. In larger towns, such as Hartford and Norwich, the town manager handles collection duties.

The delinquent tax collector in any small town has a tough job. Through letters and phone calls, the collector is charged with prodding people to cough up money that they might not have.

Jeanne Castro has served as Strafford’s delinquent tax collector for 25 years. Last year, she earned $11,554, according to town records. In December, she sent out about 75 letters to property owners who had missed the deadline.

“A few of them are having a hard time,” said Castro. “The rest just find it easier to spend their money elsewhere and pay up after a few months.”

If people are having difficulty making ends meet, she arranges monthly payment plans for the overdue taxes. She also helps residents fill out the paperwork for state tax rebates.

“That’s really the best part of the job,” she told me. “The other part you feel like Simon Legree.”

Scull and Tidman have paid their interest and penalty. Now they’re helping with the effort to change Strafford’s delinquent tax system. At Town Meeting, voters will consider abolishing the penalty and making Castro’s job a salaried position.

Castro told me that she’s not against the proposed change, which I was glad to hear. The fewer bounty hunters in Vermont, the better.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net