Editorial: Kuster owes constituents an explanation
Plenty of people, and corporations too, fall behind in their property tax payments. Last spring, for example, in an attempt to collect some $1.7 million in delinquent property taxes, the city of Concord placed tax liens on 611 properties. But that doesn’t mean that Congresswoman Annie Kuster doesn’t owe constituents an explanation for why she and her husband have been chronically late with tax payments on their home in Hopkinton and rental property in Jackson.
Property tax bills, particularly in New Hampshire, are painful. It’s easy to open one, wince and insert it deeper in the stack of bills to be paid. But public servants are expected to set a good example as citizens, and good citizenship means paying tax bills when they are due, barring extenuating circumstances.
When large numbers of property owners pay their taxes late, as happens during a recession, it creates a problem for municipal governments. In some cases it forces them to borrow in anticipation of tax revenue to cover operating costs. Municipalities, however, don’t lose money on the deal because in New Hampshire the interest rate on an overdue bill is 12 percent. That rate climbs to 18 percent once the city or town places a lien on the property. Then, if taxes plus interest go unpaid for two years and one day, a municipality has the right to sell the owner’s property to recoup what’s owed plus interest, expenses, and in some cases a penalty. Any money left over is then paid to the property’s former owner or his or her lenders.
Kuster isn’t the first elected official to come under scrutiny for paying taxes late. Former Manchester mayor and congressman Frank Guinta and state Sen. Andy Sanborn have both been in the same boat. And newly elected Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn and her husband are currently in debt to the IRS. In Concord, as far as we could determine, only one elected official is in arrears; in that case, the debt owed the city is two bucks and change, a balance that’s no doubt due to an oversight.
Paying late is easy to do if a property owner’s taxes aren’t combined with mortgage payments and escrowed until the bill comes due. The bills, which can arrive annually, semi-annually or quarterly, depending on the community, are large and can be a burden when cash flow is a problem. That’s why some property owners pay the bill in installments.
Kuster wasn’t getting away with anything by paying late, but as a public figure, she should have recognized that doing so raises questions about fiscal management that a member of Congress charged with raising and spending public money needs to answer.
Property tax bills are public records, and in many communities, including Concord, the records are online and searchable. That makes it easy to see whether your neighbor, or your representative, has paid up. And it makes it difficult to understand why Kuster hasn’t quickly explained her situation to the public. She should.