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Editorial / Naming the biggest property-tax delinquents

Published 5:32 pm, Thursday, February 21, 2013
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Few Fairfielders 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 Citizen 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 this week when The Citizen on Wednesday 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 owned the most.

Amounts owed ranged from nearly $96,000 on an estate north of the Merritt Parkway to $38,000 on modest house on a drab dead-end street between Kings Highway East and I-95.

Is that nobody's business or everybody's business?

Some on the list may have fallen on hard times.

Despite a few glimmers of hope for the nation's economy, times continue to be tough for many in Fairfield. Some are unemployed, many under-employed after losing better jobs.

Home values remain depressed. The individual or couple who bought a home in 2005 or 2006 with a down payment of 20 percent or less would be very lucky today to have a dime of equity.

Many have negative equity but continue to make their mortgage payments each month, hoping things will get better. And they pay their taxes.

Many others -- particularly empty-nesters -- would love to sell their homes but could not finance their retirements adequately by selling in depressed market. So they sit tight, hoping prices will rise. And pay their taxes.

But for some on the list of the top 25 delinquents, failing to pay taxes is nothing new. Nos. 2 and 3 on the list both owe taxes going back five years; No. 4 is six years in arrears. One delinquent owes taxes that were due in 2006 -- seven years ago.

Wednesday's story predictably was one of the top-read story's on the Citizen's website.

But failing to pay taxes isn't robbing a bank. Why print delinquents' names?

Because everyone else who pays their taxes on time is subsidizing the delinquents.

The property at the top of the delinquents' list is a Greenfield Hill estate with a 15-room house (six bedrooms, eight baths) valued at more than $5 million.

It's share of the tax burden is being subsidized by the struggling blue-collar couple in the east end of town working three jobs between them but paying taxes on their duplex.

And by the widow on a fixed income who's barely hanging onto her bungalow but paying the taxes.

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.

The 25 biggest delinquents a year ago owed more than $1.5 million. This year the top 25 owe a combined 1.3 million.

Last year the town -- much to its credit -- got more aggressive in going after delinquents, even seizing a house on posh Harbor Road in Southport and conducting a public auction.

That kind of aggressive action, the tax collector said, may be why some of last year's biggest delinquents paid up and why this year's top 25 list has fewer repeaters than the year-ago list.

Make no mistake. There are some legitimate hardship cases involving modest homes. There is an appeals process and certain tax-credit programs, and those people deserve patience.

But if owners of multi-million-dollar properties and near-million-dollar homes can't afford to pay the taxes, it is way past time to opt for more modest quarters.

And those who have the money but work the system -- fattening their bank accounts until the last possible moment before paying -- deserve to be called out publicly.