Oct. 24, 2007 · Property tax bills on file with town clerks remain publicly accessible, despite a 2006 law that critics say adds sensitive taxpayer income information to property records, the Vermont Attorney General’s office said in an opinion issued Oct. 12.
In a four-page letter addressed jointly to Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham and Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, Assistant Attorney General William Griffin said that “all records produced or acquired in the course of town business are public records.”
Griffin’s opinion is another twist in an already confusing statewide debate over the privacy of tax information. The dispute began earlier this year, when state law changed the appearance of property tax bills. Income tax rebates, which were sent directly to taxpayers in check form, now are reflected on property tax records as credits.
“The law is on the side of openness,” said Michael Donoghue, staff writer for the Burlington Free Press. “‘When in doubt, give it out’ is the philosophy under the broad statutes listed in the opinion.”
Secretary of State Markowitz had reportedly cautioned municipalities against releasing the new tax records due to recently raised privacy concerns. Tax Commissioner Pelham, however, had reportedly argued against withholding the records. Griffin’s opinion was sought to resolve the difference of opinion.
“There is no statute that authorizes municipalities to deny public access to property tax bills and other public records that show a municipality’s receipt and disbursement of property tax payments,” Griffin said.
Some towns in Vermont have decided to keep the new information secret, while others have complied with the opinion. “The Attorney General’s opinion is just that, an opinion,” Donoghue said. “No one knows who is breaking the law until someone appeals it.”