There will be a revote in Moretown on the question of how the town’s delinquent tax collector should be selected.
On August 8, Moretown voters, by a vote of 230-178, opted to give up their power to elect the delinquent tax collector and give that power to the select board.
Town voters quickly organized to gather a petition to reconsider the article alleging that there were issues with the original vote, including failure of the select board to properly communicate with voters on the issue.
The petitioners presented their concerns and the petition at the select board’s August 15 meeting. Their concerns include the fact that numerous absentee voters were unable to participate in the vote due to the fact that many state absentee ballots were mailed out before the local ballot was ready.
Will Senning, elections chair at the Vermont secretary of state’s office, said that what happens in the instance varies based on what ballots were requested.
“It depends if the person requested a ballot for that local election. They also have the option to apply for absentee ballots for ‘all local elections’ and any person that had done so should be sent a ballot for that local election. If a person had submitted a request for either that specific local election or all of them, then they should have been sent a ballot as soon as they were available to the clerk, which should be no later than 20 days before the election for a local election. The 45-day deadline is to send ballots involving federal candidates (including our state primary ballot which had senator and rep to Congress this year) to military and overseas voters. If any local ballot isn’t available at that time, it needs to be sent to those who request it, separately, when it is ready,” Senning said.
Town resident Sheila Getzinger presented the select board with a petition at their meeting this week. For a revote to happen, a petition must have 69 signatures, which is 5 percent of Moretown’s registered voters. The petition that Getzinger gave to the select board had 127.
“The voting process on this was also flawed. The first 25 people who requested absentee ballots didn’t get the town ballot. That’s 25 people who didn't get to vote, regarding their right to vote,” Getzinger said.
MY RIGHT TO VOTE
Moretown must hold the revote within 60 days of receipt of the petition and for the vote to pass it must garner at least two-thirds the amount of yes ballots cast as the original vote.
When asked why the board proposed the change, board member Michelle Beard said that the town’s desire to appoint the delinquent tax collector stemmed from the board learning, via the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, that towns could appoint a delinquent tax collector and the select board thought that it would save the town money.
“To get to that end you took away my right to vote and you did it without allowing me an opportunity to have a pubic discussion about it?” Getzinger asked.
WARNING FOR THE VOTE
At a June 6 board meeting, members of the select board discussed an article that they would put forth to the Moretown voters that would give them the ability to appoint the delinquent tax collector, which is currently an elected position voted on at Town Meeting Day.
The select board opted to put forth the article on August 9, the same date as the Vermont primary election.
The select board held a public informational meeting on July 5. As a result of the meeting, one item regarding subdivision regulations was taken off the articles to be voted.
“How many people really go to a public hearing on the day after a holiday like July Fourth?” asked town resident Paula Woods.
“Moretown is a divided town. The people at the Waterbury end feel like they’re left out in the cold all the time. Is there any reason that warnings couldn’t run in The Valley Reporter, the Waterbury Record and the Times Argus? Now we’re faced with the added expense of a special meeting and vote. When a voting right is going to be taken away, it should be published in all three papers and on Front Porch Forum,”Getzinger pointed out.
A warning of the vote was posted on July 6 at the town office, Moretown General Store, the Cobb Hill bulletin board and on the town website, all of which are designated warning spots.
On July 13, a warning was published in the Times Argus, which is one of Mooretown’s designated newspapers. The other is The Valley Reporter.
The warning must be published in a daily-circulated newspaper. Although Moretown may use The Valley Reporter for some warnings, they always use the Times Argus, according to Cheryl Brown, select board administrative assistant.
NOT ENOUGH INFORMATION
Getzinger and the residents who signed the petition are concerned there was not enough information provided about the vote. Getzinger noted that many, who voted yes figured that the current delinquent tax collector had resigned.
Some questioned the legitimacy of the vote because voters reported being asked if they would like the town ballot. However, according to Will Senning of the secretary of state’s office, election officials are permitted to ask residents which vote they will be participating in.
When this is done the election officials must keep separate voter checklists for each ballot. Moretown did keep two checklists, according to assistant town clerk Sasha Elwell.
Prior to the revote, the town must follow the same procedures. There must be an informational meeting held, a warning posted 30 days prior to the vote and a warning published in a newspaper five days prior to the vote.
The select board meets again on September 6 and they could hold the informational meeting then.
During this week’s meeting, Susan Goodyear, the former Moretown town clerk, questioned how much money this decision would actually save, noting that the town clerk and town treasurer would have to be paid more.
The select board said that the reason for this vote was purely financial. However, the select board has said that the treasurer would have to be compensated in some way for the additional work that they would be doing.
Rae Washburn, a member of the select board, said, “I think there are some valid concerns here, I really do; but I really think that this [Front Porch Forum post] went over the top as far as some of the language,” referring to a post made by Getzinger.
Getzinger responded by saying, “When someone tries to take away my right to vote I will bark. If I don’t get satisfaction when I raise the issue, I’ll bite. There are only a couple of things that are more important to me than my right to vote, Rae. Don’t take it away from me without telling me what it is about.”
TAXPAYERS ANGRY ABOUT FEES
In 2015, the town of Moretown voted to change the policies that determine when taxes are due. A postage date would no longer be accepted and the money would have to be received by the date that was set.
The result of that vote caused many taxpayers to, unknowingly or not, pay their taxes after the deadline and subsequently they were charged with the 8 percent penalty. Many taxpayers who found out about the penalty were outraged and complained to the select board.
The select board asked Craig Eilers, the current Moretown delinquent tax collector, to waive the penalty, which delinquent tax collectors have the authority to do but is something Eilers has never done and no delinquent tax collector in any Valley town can recall doing.
Eilers says that he does not waive the penalty because it is not his responsibility to decide which residents, who paid their taxes late, should be absolved of their responsibility to pay the penalty.
Each town has a board of abatement whose job is to relieve residents of taxes, penalties and interest. The board of abatement is comprised of the town clerk, the town treasurer, the select board, the listers and the justices of the peace.
In December and last April, three residents applied for abatement and two of them were granted on grounds that they did not know the due date of the taxes. The board of abatement found manifest error on the part of the town in those hearings. The board of abatement also has the authority to abate taxes, penalties or interest without a request. (See story on Page 6.)
Getzinger made the select board aware of that fact that the board of abatement has the authority to waive penalties and interest for all late payers at this week’s meeting.
Amy Eilers pointed out how hard the job of a delinquent tax collector is, sharing how her husband, Craig Eilers, works tirelessly on nights and weekends to ensure that residents are able to pay their delinquent taxes through a payment plan or by other means so that the taxpayer’s land does not fall into a tax sale.
Amy Eilers said it is a delicate balance to collect delinquent taxes for the town and caring for the taxpayer at the same time.
“It seems like this is an easy job. It’s not. He earns every penny that he gets. He’s on the phone with taxpayers constantly. I watch him work with people all the time to pay their taxes so there doesn’t have to be a tax sale. It is not just collecting checks. It is the delicate balance. You have to have a math background to do this. You can’t just hand it to someone. People won’t be able to call on Sunday afternoon. They’ll be calling employees, sitting in a box three days a week, maybe getting back to people, maybe not,” said Amy Eilers.
HOW DELINQUENT TAX RATES WORK
In Moretown, if a citizen pays their taxes late they are assessed a one-time 8 percent penalty on the amount due and there is 1 percent monthly interest until the taxes are paid. Delinquent tax collectors are paid the 8 percent penalty as their compensation for the job and the monthly interest goes into the town budget.
The penalty has a maximum value of 8 percent and that can be lowered by a vote at Town Meeting Day. In the past, Waitsfield voters voted down a proposal to change the delinquent tax collector to a salaried position.
In Warren, the delinquent tax collector and the town split the 8 percent fee.
Select board member Beard said the select board believed appointing the delinquent tax collector would save the town a considerable amount of money and that they would shift the responsibilities to the town clerk and town treasurer.
In 2015, the 8 percent penalty fees amounted to $20,271.53, up from 2013 and 2014, which were $13,262.20 and $11,048.23, respectively.