• Land deal underscores need for change
    June 16,2013
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    Stefan Hard / Staff Photo

    Jeremy Dodge’s property is seen to the left of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s property in East Montpelier. The governor bought Dodge’s property for $58,000.
    Gov. Peter Shumlin is certainly getting some press as a result of the land transaction with his neighbor in East Montpelier, and I am certain the governor would be happy if it were to just go away.

    But the occasion should not be wasted. There is the possibility of one positive result coming from this situation. Early on, and since, there have been statements that the governor was a contributor to Act 60 and, therefore, should know the rules and should have known how to help his neighbor without resorting to a land transaction. Well, yes, but there are complications I wish to address.

    I am a lister and a justice of the peace and, as such, a member of the Board of Civil Authority and, therefore, the Board of Abatement. The guidelines for abatement, as presented in the JP Handbook, would not lead one to conclude that Mr. Dodge’s delinquent taxes presented, or present, an exemplary case for abatement. The JP Handbook follows Vermont statutes, which authorize abatement on the following bases:

    “24 V.S.A. § 1535:

    “(a) The board may abate in whole or part taxes, interest, or collection fees, other than those arising out of a corrected classification of homestead or non-residential property, accruing to the town in the following cases:

    “(1) taxes of persons who have died insolvent;

    “(2) taxes of persons who have removed from the state;

    “(3) taxes of persons who are unable to pay their taxes, interest, and collection fees;

    “(4) taxes in which there is manifest error or a mistake of the listers;

    “(5) taxes upon real or personal property lost or destroyed during the tax year;

    “(6) the exemption amount available under 32 V.S.A. § 3802(11) to persons otherwise eligible for exemption who file a claim on or after May 1 but before October 1 due to the claimant’s sickness or disability or other good cause as determined by the board of abatement; but that exemption amount shall be reduced by 20 percent of the total exemption for each month or portion of a month the claim is late filed.

    “(7), (8) [Repealed.]

    “(9) taxes upon a mobile home moved from the town during the tax year as a result of a change in use of the mobile home park land or parts thereof, or closure of the mobile home park in which the mobile home was sited, pursuant to 10 V.S.A. § 6237.”

    The clause above, 24 VSA § 1535(a)(3), could look like the answer for relief for anyone finding themselves unable to pay their property taxes, but, that section is surrounded by advice that the sale of the property could enable payment ability and that the section is there for reference in a brief time of hardship, not as a long-term solution to a property owner to hold on to property he or she cannot afford.

    So under current state statutes, abatement is not the answer to Mr. Dodge’s accumulated tax delinquency.

    But one can gather from the information in the press that had Mr. Dodge properly filed his Vermont homestead declaration, and his claim for property tax adjustment, his delinquent tax amount would probably not be significant (due to income sensitivity), and he might even have found himself able to pay it.

    This is where the statements of Reps. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, and Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, come to mind. They place the blame for Mr. Dodge’s problem on a too-complicated education funding property tax system. In my opinion, they are right on, and their suggested solutions are appropriate.

    Why do we not change the law on abatement, and give the boards of abatement the authority to abate any tax and penalty that exceeds that which would have accrued had the property owner properly filed homestead declarations and property tax adjustment claims?

    Did the framers of Act 60, who included the governor, not realize that there are Vermont homeowners who are actually frightened at the prospect of trying to figure out what is going on on forms HS-122, and HI-144?

    Hopefully, changes will avoid situations going that far in the first place in the future, but if they do not, let’s change the statute so that as a last resort the boards of abatement can lay the problems to rest.

    I am guessing there will be legislation to that end in the second session of the biennium that I can co-sponsor, but if there is not, I will be looking for co-sponsors.

    Charles (Tim) Goodwin is an independent House member from Weston.
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