Manchester Attorney Wants Income Sensitivity Numbers Released

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(Host) In Manchester, a legal battle is shaping up over whether income sensitivity adjustments on property tax bills should be made public or kept confidential.

Advocates on both sides say the so-called "prebate" data makes it possible to closely estimate individual incomes.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) A provision of Vermont’s education funding law assures that most Vermonters pay education taxes based on income rather than just the value of their property.

Originally the state sent out refunds called prebates, adjusting the amount paid by Vermonters making less than $90,000 a year.

In 2006, the legislature decided that money should go directly to the towns.  Now, instead of getting a check, property owners can see on their tax bills how much their taxes were reduced.

Property tax information is part of the public record. But in Manchester, income sensitivity data is removed before the documents are made public.

John O’Keefe is the Manchester town manager.

(O’Keefe) "I think the overarching concern that we have is invasion of privacy. People when they fill out these tax returns have the expectation that this isn’t going to be a public record, that their neighbors can’t come up with how much they make."

(Keese) O’Keefe says that’s especially important in an age where personal information is used electronically for marketing and other purposes.

But now Manchester’s policy is being challenged. Manchester attorney Joseph O’Dea has filed a lawsuit in Bennington Superior Court calling for the release of three years’ worth of prebate information from the town.

O’Dea declined to comment on the suit, or to say why he wants the data.

Among the documents he submitted to the court is a 2007 opinion from the state attorney general’s office that towns’ prebate information is public.

But Steven Jeffrey of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns says differences of opinion remain.

(Jeffrey) "And it’s actually been implemented differently in towns across the state. Most towns I believe have felt that it’s a public document.  We operate under a public records law and everything is public unless there is a specific exception to it."

(Keese) Jeffrey says it is illegal to release income tax information. He says when towns took over the administration of prebates, there was some concern that town officials could face prosecution for releasing the data.

(Jeffrey) "That certainly hasn’t come to pass. But if a court deems that this is income tax information the potential exists for that."

(Keese) The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont is watching the Manchester case closely.

Vermont ACLU director Allen Gilbert calls it a clash of competing rights – the right to privacy and citizens’ rights to obtain information. But he says in this case…

(Gilbert) "It’s very well-established that information the state or any other public entity within the state holds concerning a person’s or household income is private, is confidential. I can’t go in and get the income tax return of my neighbor. It’s not a public document."

(Keese) Gilbert says it is important to make enough data accessible to enable citizens to judge whether income sensitivity is being administered properly. He says the tax department publishes prebate statistics that are not linked to specific names.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese in Manchester.

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