New Hampshire lags in setting local tax rates; bills will be late
Rates used to calculate local property taxes started dribbling out of state computers late last week, days behind schedule and raising the likelihood that tax bills and Christmas shopping lists will meld together for some New Hampshire residents.
Delays can push tax bills into the Christmas shopping season, said one town manager who questioned the need for the state to stay involved in setting tax rates for local government.
Both Maine and Vermont allow local governments to calculate their tax rates, said Jessie Levine, town manager in Bedford.
"There's been a lot of discussion lately about why we can't do it," Levine said. "I think even the smallest town with limited staff is capable of doing this math."
But the state official whose department sets tax rates said a lot of data must be compiled and checked for a tax rate to be set. The oversight is necessary because local New Hampshire governments raise almost $3.5 billion in tax revenues, said John Beardmore, commissioner of revenue administration for the state.
"We are the impartial referee in that field," he said. "While the math is fairly straightforward, there is quite a bit of data that goes into this."
The New Hampshire Municipal Association lists local tax setting as one of its high priorities, said Executive Director Judy Silva. In the past, the Department of Revenue Administration was needed to set tax rates because it had all the data, she said. Now it is available electronically.
"We don't have to wait for a piece of paper to come over from the state Department of Education telling us about student population," she said.
Earlier this month, Beardmore's Department of Revenue Administration announced that tax rates, typically set in mid-October, would be about a month late due to a new law requiring the use of the previous year's school enrollment figures to calculate education levies.
The potential delay caused an uproar, and after meeting with education officials, Beardmore's office said it would use preliminary enrollment data from last year and the first tax rates would come out Oct. 22. According to an online listing, Lebanon, Francestown and Goffstown had their rates set Oct. 24.
As of Monday, the state had established rates for 14 of the state's 235 local governments. More than 100 towns haven't supplied the necessary data for the Department of Revenue Administration to set the tax rate, Beardmore said.
Bedford received its rate last Friday.
"It could be the squeaky wheel," said Levine, who said she started calling state reps and senators in early October when she heard about the delay. She stressed the town is diligent in getting information about its budget to the state by a Sept. 1 deadline.
With a rate in hand, the town was working Tuesday on a computer bug that was preventing it from getting its 8,000 tax bills printed.
Levine said state deadlines make for a narrow window of getting out tax bills. The deadline for tax bills can't be earlier than Dec. 1, and taxpayers must be given at least 30 days to pay the bill. So the later bills go out, the later the deadlines.
"People shouldn't have to have to pay their tax bills the same time they have to shop for Christmas," Levine said.
The Coos County town of Shelburne received its rate on Monday.
Jo Carpenter, administrative assistant for Shelburne selectmen, said she talked with state tax officials on Friday by telephone, and they worked out the rate.
Carpenter was running her town's 376 tax bills Tuesday. "We're not late, we're on time," she said.
Both she and Levine said towns have been getting rates later than in the past several years.
Beardmore said people on his staff are working overtime to get bills out. Last year, the first rates were set Oct. 19.
"The state is a few days behind last year," he said. "The process typically ramps up in October and gets into full swing in November and December."