Symington moves to diffuse property tax controversy

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(Host) House Speaker Gaye Symington is moving to diffuse a growing controversy surrounding the state’s property tax system.

Symington is asking the House Ways and Means committee to determine if personal financial information from a new program should be made available to the public.

The Speaker says her goal is to keep this information private.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) For a number of years, individuals who qualified for the state’s income sensitive provision of Act 68 received a check during the course of the summer to help reduce their property tax burden.

There are roughly 109,000 Vermont households that participate in this program.

But this summer a new system was put into place – one that backers of the plan hope will give more transparency to the tax subsidy program.

Instead of mailing a check to the homeowner, the money is being sent directly to the person’s town clerk and the individual’s property tax bill is being reduced by the amount of the check.

A major question has emerged if this tax adjustment information is a matter of public record and there’s a lot of conflicting opinion on the answer.

House Republican leaders have expressed concern that if the information is made public, it will be relatively easy for anyone to determine the income level of a participating household.

Morristown Rep. Shap Smith is a member of the House Ways and Means committee. He says Speaker Symington wants the panel to meet in the near future and she’s set a specific goal for the committee:

(Smith) "Our mission when we go back is to determine whether the information is public or private. And if we determine that there is a real open question, then we are tasked to find a way to make the information private."

(Kinzel) Smith says that when the committee originally passed the new approach it assumed the information would be made public but he says lawmakers didn’t consider how other laws could affect the disclosure of this information.

(Smith) "In the discussions that we had I think that we assumed that it would be on the tax bills and the tax bills are public so we didn’t go much further than that assumption to look at whether there were other statutory provisions that would require it to remain private."

(Kinzel) House Republican leader Steve Adams says he’s pleased that Speaker Symington has finally responded to his concerns about this issue.

(Adams) "That’s been our fear is that people could use this information for – I don’t mean devious purposes but to harass taxpayers with telemarketing schemes. So let’s get this thing private. I think that’s the most important thing to do."

(Kinzel) Adams says he has two solutions to this problem – either allow individuals to opt out of the current system and let them receive a check from the state or eliminate the current approach for all taxpayers.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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