Tax Department questions centralized Grand List

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(Host-corrected)The Vermont Tax Department wants the legislature to review a new law that creates a centralized electronic database of all property in the state. VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel)The issue of the creation of a state Grand List is part of a larger debate that will engage lawmakers in the upcoming session concerning the storage and availability of public information.

Grand List information is currently available to the public at the local town clerk’s office. Some towns record only basic information such as the name of the property owner and the value of the property, while other towns have more detailed information available to the public. The Legislature asked the Vermont Tax Department to create a new state Grand List using all of this local information – one place where the names of all property owners and the value of their property would be compiled for anyone who requests it.

Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham has complied with the legislative request but he plans to raise the issue next month with lawmakers to make certain that they understand the full ramifications of their decision:

(Pelham) “I’m not sure the repercussions of having all the details associated with property values and homestead information and all the other details that are in the Grand List was a document that the Legislature expected to be available in a centralized data format.”

(Kinzel) The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has some strong objections to this plan. Director Allen Gilbert says that while the information is currently available to the public at local town offices, putting all the information into an electronic state database is a different situation:

(Gilbert) “The nature of the record changes itself and the expectation of privacy, which somebody had concerning a specific record, all of a sudden changes. And we haven’t talked about that change as a state and we really need to do that.”

(Kinzel) Gilbert thinks the creation of a state Grand List could have some unintended consequences:

(Gilbert) “We’re talking about, presumably, people from marketing firms who can get a hold of these records and have everybody’s addresses. I would assume that a marketing firm could look at the value of a house and make some pretty good educated guesses about the incomes of the people in those homes. They could target their marketing in very specific ways. We’re talking about a whole new era of firms’ access and government access to information that hasn’t existed before.”

(Kinzel) Lawmakers will also receive a report next month that will address the availability of local court records over the Internet.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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