Editorial / Calling out people who don't pay their taxes
Few Westport residents are indifferent about having their names in the local paper or on a news website.
Most either enjoy the attention or detest it -- depending on whether the light cast on them is positive or negative.
When the Westport News publishes private citizens' names in connection with negative events, the data most often is a matter of public record, and we've made a judgment that it is in the public interest for people to know about it.
That was the case last week when this newspaper ran a front-page story about property-tax delinquents. The story focused on a handful who owed the most money, but the coverage also included a list of the 25 property owners who owed the most.
The amounts owed ranged from nearly $188,000 to less than $34,000.
Some properties are very modest. Wilhemina Wirth is listed as the owner of a 768-square-foot, two-bedroom house with one bath. Delinquent taxes dating back seven years total nearly $40,000, putting the owner at No. 22 on the list.
Some properties are lavish. Carol and Stanley Seligson own a gated Beachside Avenue estate on nearly four acres overlooking Long Island Sound. Delinquent taxes are $109,000 for the current fiscal year. The owners are No. 4 on the list.
Published on March 6, the story and list predictably were among the most-viewed items on the Westport News website. But is it everybody's business or nobody's business?
The list was released by the tax collector's office at the request of the Westport News. For many on it, failure to pay their property taxes was nothing new -- 20 of the top 25 are in arrears for multiple years.
No. 1 on the list, for instance, owes taxes going back four years. Suzanne Dache Gauld owes $187,624 in unpaid taxes on her five-bedroom, three-bath home on Bluewater Hill, a short walk from the beach.
Nos. 2 and 3 both are five years in arrears.
But failing to pay taxes isn't robbing a bank. Why print delinquents' names?
Because everybody who pays their taxes on time is subsidizing them.
If fire breaks out at a delinquent property, firefighters aren't going to check with the tax collector before responding; they'll rush out and try to save the house.
Tax delinquents' kids are being educated in public schools, and the potholes are being filled on their streets.
The municipal services don't stop; the delinquents have just stopped paying for them. And while interest and penalties continue to pile up, the town is without that revenue until it is paid.
To be sure, times have been tough. The worst economic climate in 80 years has only recently begun to improve; some people remain unemployed, many are underemployed. Others may have faced serious illness and other dreadful circumstances.
But how many quarterly tax payments have to be missed for a property owner -- or in the case of the infirm, a responsible guardian -- to recognize he or she simply cannot afford to keep the property? It shouldn't take four, five or six years to face the music.
Before publishing the story, the Westport News mailed letters to the town's 50 biggest delinquents, alerting them that we were working on a story and offering them the opportunity to explain their circumstances. Only a few replied, and none would speak on the record. A couple quickly paid their taxes to get off the list.
Westport is one of the most desirable communities in the nation.
It has a gorgeous coastline, top-rated schools, attractive neighborhoods and amenities, and a small-town feel just 45 minutes from Manhattan. But it's not cheap, and there are more economical places to live in the area.
Tax officials in neighboring Fairfield last year took aggressive steps against some of that town's biggest, long-term delinquents. It began proceedings to seize several properties, and ultimately sold one of them at auction.
It has a very handsome colonial overlooking the harbor in Southport.
That's practically in Westport, and seizing delinquent properties that have been in arrears for many years is something Westport should consider.