Moretown attorney Sheila Getzinger made a strong case for Moretown’s board of abatement to waive the late property tax penalties and interest for some 23 taxpayers who failed to get their taxes to the town treasurer on time last November.
Getzinger, at an August 15 meeting of the select board, upbraided the select board whose members, in their role as members of the board of abatement, waived penalties and interest for three taxpayers, after board of abatement hearings in December 2015 and April 2016.
At issue are the penalties and interest fees assessed on 25 taxpayers whose 2015 property taxes were not received at the town office by the due date. In the past Moretown had accepted taxes that were postmarked by the due date as being paid timely.
COULD NOT BE DONE FAIRLY
At Town Meeting in 2015, voters approved a change calling for taxes to be received by the treasurer by October 31 versus when postmarked. When many taxpayers complained about being assessed the fines, the select board asked the delinquent tax collector to waive those fees, something he, Craig Eilers, declined to do because it could not be done fairly.
The board of abatement, which includes listers, the town clerk, town treasurer, the select board and justices of the peace, has the authority to waive the fees.
“The process of abatement through the board of abatement is in place for a good reason. It puts a large group of people in charge of determining disputes, rather than one. I think you tried to put Craig in that position,” Getzinger said.
“There were 22 to 23 people who were one day late. In your Front Porch Forum post you called them illiterates. These people are your friends and neighbors,” select board chair Tom Martin said.
DIDN’T READ THEIR BILLS
“I did not. I asked if it was an excuse given for not paying their taxes on time,” Getzinger responded.
“We looked at this as an unintended consequence of that floor vote to move that date back as the reason these people missed the date. Those people didn’t read their bills. That was almost $90,000 we had in taxes on Monday, the day after they were due. That was an $8,000 day for Craig,” Martin said.
“How could you abate the fees then for a lawyer and second-home owner and not for all the people?” Getzinger asked, referring to abatements issued after hearings in December and April.
CAN’T ABATE EVERYONE
“We sent a letter to all of them inviting them to request an abatement,” Martin said.
“We can’t abate for everyone,” board member Michelle Beard said.
“Yes, you can. You found that the town failed to notify taxpayers; you, as members of the board of abatement, found that the town failed to notify taxpayers. You could have abated everyone’s penalty and interest. How could you do it for two people and not our neighbors?” Getzinger asked.
“That’s why I asked Craig to do it,” Martin said.
IT’S YOUR JOB
“You could have waived it. You’re on the board of abatement. You have the authority. Why didn’t you do it? You knew that 23 people paid a day late. It’s your job,” Getzinger said.
“The people I spoke to didn’t know their appeal rights after they spoke to you,” Beard said.
“But you knew. You all knew,” Getzinger responded.
“We gave them the opportunity. We weren’t going to tell them to abate the penalties and interest,” board member John Hoogenboom said.
“It would have been more fair, because you selectively abated for two people,” town resident and former select board and planning commission chair Paula Woods said.
“You don’t need an application for abatement. Do it now. You have the authority. Do you think those people don’t want an abatement? You made a finding that there was manifest error and could have abated every single person who paid late in 2015,” Getzinger continued, questioning why the board abated only two or three people.
“It was a manifest error,” Beard said.
“I’m not saying I agree that there was a manifest error, but now you’ve made it a fact,” Getzinger said.
TOWNS PAYS IT BACK
One of the board members suggested that if all delinquent taxpayers had their fees abated, that Eilers, the delinquent tax collector, would pay it back, an idea that was quickly squashed.
“No, if you found manifest error, you pay it back, not the delinquent tax collector,” Getzinger said.
On the issue of whether there was manifest error, the board of abatement found that there was, and the members of the board of abatement were divided.
The board received two requests after the November 2015 tax payments were made. At a December hearing, $241.90 in penalties and fees were waived for Mike and Linda McGrath, due to the due date change. That vote was unanimous.
But board member Mike Woods said that he didn’t have the courage to speak up with his concerns about the abatement. Prior to the McGrath hearing was a very complicated multipart hearing that required a lot of preparation, Woods said.
“I was not 100 percent prepared for the McGrath abatement hearing because I spent so much time preparing for the first hearing. I expected the others to be no-brainers so I didn’t do enough research,” said Woods, who is a lister.
“We got to the McGraths and the select board was like ‘We’ll take care of it’. I didn’t have the courage to speak up. Manifest error or lister error has a broad interpretation. State recommendations and examples of manifest errors lists one where the town changes the way that taxes could be paid, exactly like Moretown did. But in the example the town didn’t print the new information on the tax bill, just made the change and failed to announce it or notify anybody,” he said.
When the issue came back, at a board of abatement hearing in April, Woods said, he and others argued against abating and against a finding of manifest error because Moretown’s tax bills clearly stated the change and the new due date and the matter had been publicly discussed at Town Meeting. The board of abatement vote was 5-4 to abate $284.63 in fees for Emily and Michael Brown. John Hoogenboom, Michelle Beard, Rob Roberts, Steve Magill and Catherine Scribner voted in favor of abating. Woods, Cherilyn Brown, Deborah Feldman and Ron Shems voted against it.