Act 60: Unreliable, unfair, arbitrary and capricious

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(Host) A recent court ruling has called into question the fairness of the state property tax under Act 60. CommentatorJeff Wennberg thinks the implications are much bigger than the state admits.

(Wennberg) When the members of the Vermont Coalition of Municipalities gathered in Rutland Town last week, one would have expected a somewhat depressed mood. After all, the group was formed to bring about the repeal of Act 60 – or at least the statewide property tax upon which the law is based – and five years after passage, the law and the tax are still on the books.

But instead of being somber, attendees were eager to see the program. It wasn’t the debate between the Republican and Democrat candidates for governor that drew their interest; it was discussion of the Killington decision.

On September 3, Superior Court Judge William Cohen issued a 53-page ruling on the Town of Killington’s appeal of their 1997 state property taxes under Act 60, and everyone in this room knew the Killington decision would have far-reaching consequences for Act 60’s future. Like so much dealing with Act 60, Judge Cohen’s decision reads like a doctoral thesis in statistics. But his conclusions are unequivocal. He wrote:

“In light of the overwhelming evidence in this case, this court finds that the methodologies used by the State in the 1997 equalization study were arbitrary and capricious, and that their application constituted an abuse of discretion granted to the Commissioner of Taxes.”

Judge Cohen acknowledges that, “mathematical exactitude is not required; equity and fairness are.” But goes on to state, “. . . the evidence in this case leads to the inescapable conclusion that the State’s methodologies used in 1997 were about as rational as rolling dice.'”

The decision totally strips away the fa ade of fairness that has allowed Act 60 advocates to claim that all taxpayers and towns are treated the same. Thanks to the state’s unreliable system of equalizing’ property appraisals between communities, huge disparities persist. In one example the Judge compared two equivalent taxpayers in Dover and Brunswick, and concluded that one could have paid twice as much in state education taxes as the other.

Administration officials claim that the ruling has no impact outside Killington. This is a bit hard to understand since the inequities are the result of unreliable methods used throughout Vermont. The Administration says the problems have been corrected since 1997. But of seven specific failures identified in the state’s Act 60 methodologies, six are still in use.

In response to the state’s denial that Vermont’s methods are fatally flawed, the Coalition intends to press the point. They will encourage every selectboard in every town to appeal the state’s determination of next year’s property values, just as Killington did in 1997. Using a single attorney to represent the group, they will seek a ruling that forces the issue state-wide.

This is Jeff Wennberg in Rutland.

Jeff Wennberg is a former mayor of Rutland.

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