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By M.E. Jones

Correspondent

SHIRLEY — Formed several months ago, the Tax Collection Committee consists of assessor Ron Marchetti, tax collector Holly Haase, treasurer Kevin Johnston and principal assessor Becky Caldbeck.

The group is charged with addressing the problem of delinquent taxes and coming up with a collection plan. The committee updated selectmen on its progress on Dec. 8.

Selectmen have added input and shared their concerns on the issue since a previous report on the committee’s mission and goals was delivered in September, Marchetti said.

Then, over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Department of Revenue weighed in with the results of a recent audit, done at the town’s request. The committee has incorporated several of the DOR’s recommendations into its plan, he said.

For example, the committee is working on a plan to “fully use all means” to collect delinquent taxes and thus augment free cash. The tax collector and treasurer have “mandated duties” in this regard, Marchetti said.

With about a half million dollars in the collector’s sector and a million in the treasurer’s lists, outstanding taxes on the books — some dating back several years — represent a “pretty significant” block to town cash flow, he said, especially in tight financial times.

When there was “plenty of money” in municipal coffers, collecting back taxes was not a top priority for town officials, Marchetti explained. Now, it is.

Marchetti said it has been helpful to have selectmen talk “one on one” to residents who owe taxes before initiating legal steps, but the intent is to speed up the collection process. The committee is still working to establish “overlay” policies to back it up, he added.

Provisions in state law allow town boards that issue permits and licenses to revoke or deny those documents to tax delinquents, and the DOR report recommended doing so. The building inspector and Zoning Board of Appeals already do that, the selectmen said, but the Planning Board and Conservation Commission are not on board yet.

In her introduction, Caldbeck said the presentation would cover four task-related topics: The consequences of delinquent taxes for the town and the taxpayer; options to address the issue; recommended actions; and an update on the collection process.

Outstanding bills accrue interest and penalties and property owners who don’t pay could face foreclosure, she said, and that’s a negative for them and the town. However, taking action to “relieve the debt” can be a win/win.

The most desirable scenario is to clear the debt by paying it in full, and it’s in the owner’s best interest to do so, Caldbeck said.

Partial payment is a second option, she said, and in cases of non-payment, “collection measures” can be taken but it’s better not to let things get that far. “We’ve done a lot of research” into procedures to address delinquencies annually, she said.

Haase and Johnston each outlined steps they’ve taken to clear the books.

The tax collector reminds delinquent taxpayers they are in arrears via at least a half dozen notification letters, with penalties and fees attached to the bills. Still, she conceded there is more she can do to improve the lines of communication, such as posting information on the town Web site and reaching out in other ways when quarterly tax payments are due.

To date, the tax collector has whittled overdue balances that totaled over $500,000 in half, while the treasurer has brought in another $137,000 for the town, Marchetti said.