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Jim Kenyon: Time to End Town Report Shaming Over Delinquent Taxes

Did you know there were two home births in Norwich last year?

Or that when school started last fall, Pomfret had only four first-graders?

And in Thetford, the town issued as many building permits — 18 — for decks and porches in 2013 as in the previous two years combined?

The annual town reports that come out this time of year in Vermont are chock-full of such tidbits.

But towns should turn the page on one piece of information that some of them insist on printing.

I’m talking about the list of property owners who have fallen behind in paying their real estate taxes.

I suppose some people might argue that eliminating the delinquent tax list from town reports would be akin to Playboy doing away with its centerfold. If you can’t find out who in town might be having money trouble, what’s the point of the book at all?

“For many people, it’s the first page they look at,” said Pomfret Selectboard Chairman Michael Reese. “It’s kind of like people slowing down to look when they see a car accident.”

In a move that Reese supported, Pomfret’s three elected auditors broke with tradition when they put together the 2013 annual report, which arrived in residents’ mailboxes last month. The auditors took it upon themselves to stop giving delinquent taxpayers the Scarlet Letter treatment.

“I think we’re over it,” said auditor JoAnn Webb, referring to the cutting of the D list.

Other Vermont towns in the Upper Valley that have stopped printing the list of delinquents, or never started, include Norwich, West Windsor and Woodstock. Meanwhile Hartford, Hartland, Sharon, Strafford, Thetford and Windsor are among the communities that continue clinging to the tradition.

Until the Thetford Selectboard or voters tell her to stop printing names and how much they owe, Jill Graff, the town’s delinquent tax collector, feels she has no choice. “I don’t like having to do it, but I see the results it gets,” she said.

Last year, about 25 Thetford property owners who missed the mid-October payment deadline delivered checks to the town before Dec. 31. For paying late, the property owners were still hit with an 8 percent penalty that went into town coffers, but they avoided having their names appear in the town report. “It is an incentive,” said Graff.

Hartland Town Manager Bob Stacey told me, “We’ll get calls at the end of December from people asking how much time they have let to pay. They’ll say, “I don’t want to be in the book.’ ”

The 2013 Hartford town report includes a page of nearly 30 individuals and entities that hadn’t paid up by Dec. 31. They owed anywhere from $12 to $8,344.

“It’s just local gossip,” said Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg. “It’s an antiquated way to embarrass people.”

Along with archaic, it’s become a bit chaotic.

In 2011, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that property tax information used to calculate “income sensitivity” adjustments to residents’ real estate taxes should remain private.

After the court ruling and subsequent legislative changes, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which advises communities on such matters, issued a warning to communities that “while you can lawfully publish the names of delinquent taxpayers, publication of the amount owed by a taxpayer could subject the collector and the town to liability.”

Around the same time, in late 2012, Bill Johnson, an official with the Vermont Tax Department, emailed town treasurers and delinquent tax collectors around the state. If towns still wanted to print how much an individual was in the red on his or her property taxes, Johnson advised, they should leave out the “component parts of the delinquency,” such as the year (or years), penalty and interest owed.

Last week, I perused a half dozen or so town reports. Apparently, town officials have interpreted what the league and Johnson had to say quite differently.

Sharon and Windsor have gone to printing just names and years. Strafford and Thetford print names and amounts owed, but not years. Hartford and Hartland print names, amounts owed and years, although you can’t tell if dollar figures indicate an individual’s entire bill or just a portion of it.

Confused?

Join the club. I put in a call to Johnson, who is the guru on property tax issues in Vermont. What should towns that still insist in a public airing of individuals’ dirty laundry do? I asked

Tread carefully, he said. Towns that print financial information are “cutting it a little close, but could probably get away with it.” It’s safer to print just a list of names. After that, “it starts to get a little chancy,” he said. “Someone could take them to court, potentially.”

But from my viewpoint, it’s more than just a legal matter. It’s a matter of civility.

I suspect that most people who are behind on their property taxes aren’t delinquent by choice. Chances are they’ve fallen on hard times. The loss of a job and medical expenses are the first things that come to mind when I think of reasons why people can’t pay their tax bills in a timely fashion.

Residents (and newspaper reporters, too) who feel a need to know who’s on the delinquent list can pay a visit to their town offices. It’s public information.

Just not book material.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.