Debate over property tax system administration

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(Host) There’s renewed debate about how to administer Vermont’s property tax system.

Some critics say changes in the education funding law are making individual taxpayers’ incomes a matter of public record.

And a lawyer in Manchester is advising towns not to give out the information.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports:

(Sneyd) Two years ago, Vermont lawmakers voted to end the practice of sending "prebate" checks to qualifying property owners.

"Prebates" were the part of income sensitivity that limited what most Vermonters paid in education property taxes to about 2% of their income.

The state would calculate the prebate and then send a check to taxpayers. Taxpayers then could use the check to help pay their property tax bills.

The Legislature decided that was too cumbersome.

Starting this summer, there is no prebate check. Taxpayers get a bill that’s been discounted to reflect their income, so no check is necessary.

Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham explains.

(Pelham) "From a public policy point of view it provides information at the local level that will allow people to better understand how income sensitivity works."

(Sneyd) Now, though, critics say the state and towns are letting people and marketing companies pore through information about Vermonters’ income.

That’s because property tax records, which now include income sensitivity calculations always have been open under the state’s public records laws.

Many people think the income information should remain private.

Manchester lawyer Robert Woolmington is one of them. He says private income information is exempt from release under public records act. He says income sensitivity” is no different.

(Woolmington) "The type of information that’s contained in these tax adjustment filings with the town is essentially the same type of information. And I’ve advised the town that it’s covered by that exemption."

(Sneyd) Some towns have released the disputed information. Others are keeping it private. The American Civil Liberties Union says it’s considering a lawsuit to settle the issue.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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