The South Burlington Board of Abatement denied resident Maria Donahue a waiver for penalties and fees associated with her late property tax payment. 

Donahue felt she had fallen victim to an odd state law and city policy. Maria’s father, Kevin Donahue, pleaded her case to the board of abatement on May 30, while she was out of state. Their argument was based on a Vermont law that sends property tax bills to a property’s owner as of April 1. For new homeowners like Maria, who purchased her condominium in June of 2018, the bill is not always forwarded by the old owner, leaving margin for error.

“While the board was sympathetic to Maria’s situation, they denied her waiver on multiple bases,” Kevin said. 

The board felt that because Maria’s attorney had warned her that she would not receive a bill in the mail she should have been aware of the situation, he said. Secondly, it noted the listers had made no manifest error. The board noted its appreciation of Kevin’s thoughts on improving the home purchasing process in South Burlington, but offered no concrete solution, as its members can only recommend changes to the city. 

“We were pretty disappointed,” Kevin said. “There isn’t a solution at the moment and that’s irritating to me and irritating to Maria.”

While filling her income taxes this past April, Maria Donahue was shocked to find she owed South Burlington $681.54 in penalties and interest on her home bill. Maria had purchased the home in June 2018 but forgot about paying her property tax bill during a busy time of settling into her new home. She had received neither a property bill in the mail nor subsequent delinquency notice for that bill. Rather, that information had been mailed to the previous property owner.

In Vermont, grand lists are set each April 1. According to state title 32 V.S.A. 3651, 3691 tax bills associated with a property are sent to the individual(s) who owned the property as of April 1. For individuals who buy property after April 1, this means their tax bill is sent wherever the previous owner’s bill was mailed. If the bill is not paid, all subsequent delinquency notices are likewise sent to the previous owner. Homebuyers are responsible to remember to pay their bills, and attorneys are supposed to remind them during the sale.

Maria’s attorney did remind her, however she soon forgot once she bought the condominium.

“I hope that there’s going to be a fix,” Maria said in reference to the city’s policy, “but I have a feeling there won’t be. It’s sad.” 

The Other Paper called South Burlington Tax Collector Martha Lyons to learn more about the board’s decision, however, she was not at liberty to discuss the board’s proceedings made during a private deliberation. She directed the paper to call one of the board of abatement members.  Board of abatement member Peter Taylor likewise declined to comment on the private decision-making process and suggested The Other Paper speak with one of the city council members.

City council chair Helen Riehle told The Other Paper this type of case doesn’t come across the board of abatement’s desk often. In her six years serving, she said she’s seen about three similar cases. 

“It’s just one of those really hard lessons that you learn,” Riehle said. “[Maria] will probably never ever miss a payment if she sells this house and buys another one.”

As for a future fix, Riehle said she wasn’t sure what the city could do. 

“We really don’t have the staffing capability to do all this double checking,” she said, adding that while one would think there could be a computer automated fix, there was none. 

During the hearing, board members wondered if a South Burlington welcome package including tax information could be a possible solution to help new homeowners. Riehle, however, told The Other Paper she wasn’t sure how helpful it would be. She wondered if a homebuyer would recall information from a welcome packet given to them, in some cases, months before taxes were due. 

“That’s no guarantee we save ourselves from ourselves,” she said. 

Riehle also reiterated that lawyers are required to tell homebuyers about their property tax responsibility at the time of sale. 

Maria said having exhausted city outlets, she would likely drop the matter. 

“I really don’t think that I should be on the hook for all those penalties and fees,” she said. “I’m disappointed and I wish we could have come to a compromise.”

Maria added the city should take ownership as the previous homeowner called officials there to report he had received her property tax bill. Likewise, Maria felt that after several delinquency notices went unanswered, the city should have reached out to her.

“To me it’s mismanagement from the top down,” Kevin said. “All of them have some fault that this is not being solved.”

He added that he still felt that the city should repay Maria and any other residents who had forgotten a property tax payment due to a May-March home purchase and no bill mailed to their address. 

“We’re spending money like water in this town,” Kevin said. “$60 million and we can’t pave roads, $60 million and we can’t send bills to the right person.”

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