Back up the trolley car

We've resisted the temptation to weigh in with a comment or two about Gov. Peter Shumlin's unfortunate property acquisition in East Montpelier so far, and it hasn't been easy. Rarely do situations come along that offer the richness of this one: the state's most powerful official stumbling over such an avoidable pitfall as he has with an indigent neighbor who clearly had no business negotiating the sale of his home and property without some outside counsel, and the inevitable appearance that the governor exploited the situation to his personal benefit. Or maybe the facts haven't fully come out yet. Even allowing for that, it's remarkable that someone with the governor's political antennae and acumen didn't see warning flags not only fluttering, but stretched out full in front of him.

To recap, for those of you busy with other things in the past few weeks: last fall Gov. Shumlin negotiated the purchase of a parcel of property adjacent to one he already owned. It was assessed for more than $233,000 and was owned by a man, Jeremy Dodge, who had a long record of petty crime and who clearly suffered from learning disabilities. Shumlin urged Dodge to get his own lawyer to help him with the transaction, but Dodge didn't. Facing the prospect, Dodge believed, of losing his home and property entirely to a tax sale because he owed $18,000 in back property taxes to the town, decided to sell the 16-acre property to Shumlin for $58,000, a fraction of its apparent worth. Town listers have since reduced the assessed value to $140,000 due to the distressed condition of the house on the property.

Now Dodge regrets the deal, and says he didn't understand that there were other alternatives he might have explored to avoid eviction and the property being put up for a tax sale. Shumlin, to his credit - sort of - has offered to sell the property back to his neighbor for the same price he paid for it assuming a payment schedule can be worked out.

That's where things stood as of last weekend, anyway. We'll offer the Governor some free political advice. There's no way he comes out looking like any kind of good guy here unless he forgoes the entire deal and resets the dials to where they stood before this whole misadventure began. Tear up whatever contacts have been signed, no matter if they are legal and were entered into fair and square.

Then offer to pay the neighbor the full, fair market value for the property, if he wants it that badly. The governor is a wealthy man. He can afford it. Jeremy Dodge, the indigent neighbor, needs top dollar for his land. The smart thing politically, and the right thing morally, is for the governor to pony up if Dodge's parcel of land is that valuable to him.

All that is however, secondary to the main point we see coming out of this whole political tar baby. As former state representative Oliver Olsen, who represented the Weston, Winhall, Stratton, Jamaica and Londonderry from 2010 12 noted shortly after the news of this whole deal broke a couple of weeks ago, Dodge should never have had to pay that much in taxes owing to his low annual income. The income sensitivity provisions of Act 68 are supposed to protect citizens like Jeremy Dodge, who own property assessed and of taxable value that outstrips their ability to pay because their income is below a certain figure. While we've expressed concerns from time to time about whether or not those income sensitivity provisions shielded homeowners from fully appreciating the connection between their education taxes and property values, in this case, Mr. Dodge should have been untroubled by the $18,000 he owed - he thought - in back taxes, because his annual income, apparently in the $10,000 range, is so low. However, he failed to file the appropriate paperwork; in this case, a Homestead Declaration.

Dodge is not alone in having trouble understanding the complexities of Act 68 and the requirement of filing the Homestead Declaration. Our best guess is that many Vermonters don't either, including many who finished high school and college, hold good paying jobs and otherwise consider themselves to be active, functioning members of society. The law is simply too complex, as we've said before. If put to the test, probably few lawmakers could offer up a succinct explanation of it.

Patti Komline, another local state representative, addressed this issue at a recent press conference where she both castigated Gov. Shumlin for taking advantage of a handicapped neighbor and called for a more streamlined approach to income sensitivity. She and her legislative colleague Kurt Wright, R- Burlington, would also like to see each town clerk pull up lists of residents in danger of having their properties auctioned off at a public tax sale to see if they could avoid all that simply by reviewing whether they quality for relief because of their income status.

Interestingly enough, Gov. Shumlin thinks simplifying that process is a good idea too - now. As one of the prime architects of the original Act 60 legislation which paved the way for its successor, Act 68, it's surprising that this hadn't occurred to him before. It would also be surprising if he didn't think to suggest to Jeremy Dodge that he should explore whether or not he was in fact on the hook for $18,000 in back property taxes. The governor is a shrewd bargainer with a business background and not intimidated or daunted by paperwork. Most ordinary folks find it burdensome, as well as confusing.

Again, while we don't expect to be hired as political spin doctors by the governor's office anytime soon, we'd suggest to Mr. Shumlin that now is a good time to cut his losses, go back to square one and void the deal outright. The governor did nothing wrong in a legal sense and no one is suggesting he broke any laws or anything like that. But he did take advantage of a situation that just comes off looking a little unseemly for the state's top elected public official. It's not like he's another business guy out making a deal. You give up something when you aspire to and obtain high public office, and with the benefits of that come some limitations as well. This is one example of that.


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