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Towns cope with privacy issues

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September 6, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County town clerks have developed their own policies on releasing citizens’ property tax information until the Legislature revisits the manner in which education funding information is reflected in public tax records.

That was the word from officials in several area towns last week, as they continued to grapple with the new way in which property tax prebates are distributed to qualifying taxpayers under the Vermont’s education funding laws.

To spread the cost of education equally, the state’s Act 60 and Act 68 education funding laws until this year mandated that the Vermont Department of Taxes set a statewide property tax rate, calculate property owners’ tax bills based on local conditions, and send checks, called prebates, to homeowners whose incomes do not surpass a given threshold.

But the Legislature changed the rules during the past session, ostensibly to simplify the process, according to Brad James, education finance manager for the Vermont Department of Education. Prebates this year were directly factored into citizens’ property tax bills, with the information sent to their respective town clerk offices.

The switch has prompted protests from some citizens and town clerks who believe anyone, from neighbors to telemarketers, may be able to request a tax bill as a public document and use that information to calculate the taxpayer’s household income.

“There is a problem here, and it needs to be fixed,” conceded Vermont Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham.

Pelham is among several state officials scheduled to testify before lawmakers on Sept. 10 to offer their views on how the new system could be tweaked to assuage taxpayers’ concerns about financial confidentiality.

At this point, officials are not on the same page in terms of how tax bill information should be guarded or distributed.

Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz’s position, as reflected in her September 2007 newsletter, is that “a town could reasonably take the position that the prebate information is not public since, by a simple calculation, this information can be used to determine an individual’s income level. Of course, unless and until there is a court case, we will not know with certainty.”

Pelham has stated that while tax data is technically public information, he is suggesting that local officials “seek the advice of the town attorney” before releasing prebate-related documents.

“Our position from the beginning has been that the privacy issue is of paramount importance,” Pelham said. “We are willing to work with (the Legislature) on a solution that relieves public officials of this burden.”

Many town clerks have established their own policies for the release of tax bill information.

Bristol Town Clerk Therese Kirby and her staff will not give out copies of tax information without written permission from the landowner. She acknowledged that while much of the information may be public, she does not want to leave herself or her town open to a lawsuit.

While no curious folks have come in yet to request tax bill information on a fellow resident or neighbor, Kirby said some citizens are concerned it may eventually happen.

Middlebury Town Clerk Ann Webster has not received any tax prebate information inquiries, either. But the subject is definitely on town clerks’ radar screens, she said.

“There has definitely been a lot of talk among town clerks, trying to figure out what to do,” Webster said.

Until the Legislature draws up new marching orders, Webster will stick to a policy of releasing only information on the total tax bill for a piece of property. Absent from the sheet will be refund/prebate details or other information that could provide hints to a taxpayers’ household income.

In Vergennes, City Clerk Joan Devine is maintaining a policy of open records. She said no one, to this point, has come scavenging for prebate and tax bill information.

“The tax department says it’s public information, and I’m going with the tax department,” Devine said.

Smaller communities in the county are also confronting the matter.

“No one has asked me for any one else’s rebate values except their own,” Leicester Town Clerk Donna Pigeon said. She has received phone calls from two former Leicester residents, who sold their property before the end of last year, requesting a copy of their credit information.

But since she only has a list containing all Leicester residents’ rebate values, she refused to send them the information. Those values are not public information, she maintained.

In Whiting, Town Clerk Grace Simonds said she hasn’t had any requests for rebate information. But the selectboard recently voted to adopt a policy, in case she does get one.

“Only if it were an attorney or a family member would I give out that information,” she said.

Pelham is optimistic lawmakers will solve the prebate confidentiality matter this winter.

“It’s clear to me the Legislature is retracing its steps here, and we’ll see where it leads,” Pelham said.

Editor’s note: Megan James contributed to this story.

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