Data company tried to collect Vermonter income info

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(Host) The national data company LexisNexis tried to collect some of the personal income data that’s showing up in Vermont town clerks’ offices.

Critics say that’s just what they feared would happen when the state paired income information with property tax records.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) Bennington Town Clerk Tim Corcoran says the call was taken by one of his assistants.

(Corcoran) "A company from Florida asked for a list of who and how much people got on prebates."

(Sneyd) The caller was told if he wanted information, a written request had to be filed, and the issue was dropped.

A spokesman at LexisNexis says a subsidiary was interested in the information for legitimate business purposes. But the company has decided not to pursue it.

Critics say LexisNexis is unlikely to be the last company wanting to take a look at the newly available data.

Town clerks’ property tax records have always been open to the public.

But, this summer, those records are being supplemented with material from the state Tax Department about residents’ incomes.

Most Vermonters’ property tax bills are adjusted through income sensitivity. If they qualify, they only pay about two percent of their income toward education.

Until this year, the adjustment was made when the state mailed a check to taxpayers. Now, the state is telling town clerks what the adjustment is and clerks are reducing tax bills before they’re mailed.

Stowe Town Clerk Alison Kaiser says it’s easy to use the new information from the state to calculate someone’s income.

(Kaiser) "If someone were to get a copy of a tax bill, which is part of the public record, you can take that tax bill and manipulate it using the state Tax Department’s own tax calculator right on their Web site, to go backwards into somebody’s income."

(Sneyd) There’s disagreement among town clerks – and among state officials – about whether the income adjustment information should be public.

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz has said it should be kept private.

But Montpelier’s clerk relied on advice from the Tax Department. So she released 24 pages of data to two individuals who asked for it. One of the requests came from the state Republican Party.

Allen Gilbert is the head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont. He says anything that could be used to determine household income should be private.

(Gilbert) "Household income is a prized bit of information, maybe by your neighbor next door, but I think more importantly by data aggregators. Data aggregators, national companies, want to have income information for households. And they use it for marketing purposes."

(Sneyd) So the ACLU expects to go to court and ask a judge to lock the information back up.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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