West Tisbury considers tax interest amnesty to boost payments

West Tisbury property owners whose property has been slapped with a title lien for failure to pay back property taxes may get a break if voters at the next town meeting approve an interest amnesty program, as suggested by town treasurer Kathy Logue. The town selectmen last week unanimously approved placing the question before voters at the next town meeting.

Ms. Logue explained to the selectmen that currently there are 25 properties in West Tisbury with town tax title liens. Between now and Thanksgiving, she said another 5 to 20 more may be added to the list by town tax collector Brent Taylor.

Delinquent property owners owe approximately $155,000 to $160,000 in property taxes. Ms. Logue estimated that with the 16 percent simple interest added by statute annually and computed through October, the total amount owed to the town is $234,000 to $239,000.

“If we were to structure the program as we did in 2004, there would be a 50 percent amnesty on interest on the tax title only,” Ms. Logue said. She said that if the tax interest amnesty program were undertaken, it could be the last time for another six years before the offer would be made again.

Although the amount of interest owed on the properties under tax title liens is $79,000 (as computed through October) seven of the properties are well along in the foreclosure process and are not likely to take advantage of an amnesty program. Ms. Logue estimated that the likely number of property owners who might take advantage of the interest amnesty program would account for a tax interest delinquency of $25,500, so the town would be waiving approximately $12,500.

However, property owners must pay off the property taxes in arrears completely by the end of that fiscal year to be eligible for the interest amnesty program. The town is also allowed to tag on the cost to the town of seeking the back tax payments, including registry fees and advertising costs. Only property owners whose property has a lien on the title are eligible. The town is not allowed to give any amnesty on property taxes.

“In 2004, the owners of seven or eight parcels of land took advantage of the tax interest amnesty program who would not have done this otherwise,” Ms. Logue told The Times. During that program $65,000 in back taxes and $27,000 in interest were paid with $27,000 in interest being waived.

The selectmen discussed with Ms. Logue the timing of a town meeting to seek voter approval.

“If we were having a fall special town meeting (STM) anyway then it would a good thing to do then,” Ms. Logue said because property owners would have until the end of June 2011 to pay off the property taxes in arrears. If the vote were on the warrant at the spring annual town meeting there would be only 10 weeks for settlement of those accounts. Ms. Logue did say that the suggestion of tax title interest amnesty was probably not worth a STM all by itself.

In other business last Wednesday, the selectmen voted unanimously to sign a $17,500 contract with EMG, a Maryland based firm, to conduct an assessment of the maintenance needs of the town’s eight buildings and develop a maintenance schedule for those buildings. EMG has done work for Island Elderly Housing. It was one of three firms that town administrator Jennifer Rand contacted prior to development of the article on the town warrant at the annual meeting last spring. When Ms. Rand went back to the three firms to solicit bids, EMG was the only one to respond, she told The Times.

The EMG contract includes $2,500 to assess the West Tisbury School, a building the town owns but leases to up-Island regional school district. Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter asked that the school be asked to pay for its assessment, and selectman Richard Knabel said the request was being made.

The town emergency management director John Christensen gave the selectmen a report on the emergency management association (EMA) meeting held Sept. 14. He focused on the Island-wide effort prior to hurricane Earl. The EMA is a volunteer organization made up of each of the town’s designated emergency management directors.

“Code Red seems to have been the most contentious issue,” Mr. Christensen said. Code Red is the Island-wide reverse calling emergency notification system.

“There were legitimate complaints,” Mr. Christensen said. The Code Red system was used to send out preparatory information that the EMA members agreed could be better communicated by the mass media in the future.

Mr. Knabel said, “The issue is to not use Code Red for trivial or less dangerous situations.”

A second issue raised at the EMA meeting was the Oak Bluffs emergency management director’s use of the Code Red broadcast system to warn that there would be a county-wide driving ban and business closures at 2 pm on Friday.

“Oak Bluffs had no right to make that message, using that wording,” Mr. Christensen said, because only the Dukes County sheriff and the communications center have the authority to issue countywide warnings.

Mr. Knabel acknowledged that he has learned much since the hurricane. “We, the selectmen, have no authority to close roads or close businesses. The only person who can close roads is the governor of the Commonwealth. And I do not know that even he can demand that businesses be closed,” Mr. Knabel said.

Mr. Christensen said, according to a document distributed at the EMA meeting, the Civil Defense Act of 1950 states that a “governor’s or local chief executive’s ‘declaration of emergency’ does not directly affect the operation of private enterprise.”

“But if that’s the law, and a group and members of the association were read the law, still some members disagree?” selectman Cynthia Mitchell asked. Mr. Christensen silently nodded.

Mr. Christensen said, “We should try to have a unified approach to this.”

Ms. Mitchell said, “I am inferring that at your group last night there was not a consensus about this point.”

“Well, that’s right,” Mr. Christensen said.

Mr. Knabel asked, “Is there a protocol in place for how the sheriff gets a message that needs to go out to the entire county. It seems to me that I am not hearing that is the case.” Mr. Christensen said that among the EMA members, “there is not even a perceived need for a protocol.”

Mr. Knabel said that he will request that the subject be on the agenda for the All-Island Selectmen’s Association meeting, September 23 at 7 pm, in the Aquinnah Old Town Hall.

Mr. Christensen said that the state is sending someone to the Island to assist the towns in applying for reimbursement funds to cover the costs of preparations. He said he would determine what, if any, reimbursable expenses there were for West Tisbury.

He is also preparing an insert for tax bills to attempt to encourage town property owners to be sure to enroll in the Code Red program through the town website (www.westtisbury-ma.gov). Currently there are 1,450 West Tisbury telephone numbers registered. About 200 were found to be inoperative during the hurricane Earl notification process.

The selectmen also accepted with regrets the letter of resignation of former selectman Diane Powers from the Tri-Town Ambulance Service board of directors. Mr. Knabel will assume that post.