clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Should hardship tax breaks be made public?

LOGAN — Cache County Attorney George Daines says he was simply following the law when he directed county officials not to let the public know details about people who apply for reductions in their property taxes because of hardships.

But others say Daines is misinterpreting the law, and keeping the information secret deprives other taxpayers of the ability to judge whether such tax breaks are justifiable and equitable.

After aspects of a hardship applicant's medical problems and financial condition were printed in Logan's Herald Journal, Daines sent a memorandum to the county executive outlining his opinion that state law prohibits the county from releasing financial and medical information about someone applying for property tax relief.

The newspaper reported the information after a county councilman questioned at a public meeting whether someone with a house worth $334,000 should get a tax break. Although Daines said his opinion was based on his reading of the law, he said people applying for hardship exemptions are entitled to privacy.

"To have an older person, or a person who has terminal cancer, reveal at a public meeting, 'I have terminal cancer. I can't pay my bills,' that's the issue," Daines said. "We're going to try to protect these people from public ridicule."

Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake City lawyer specializing in media law, said state law does authorize the county to keep some medical and financial information private. But he said Daines is interpreting the law too narrowly.

"While a privacy interest may exist in certain personally identifiable medical and financial information submitted by hardship applicants, it seems to me that much information still can and should be provided to the public about this program, such as the names of the persons granted relief, the amount of the tax relief requested and granted and the general grounds for relief," Hunt said.

And Mike Sweeney, journalism professor at Utah State University, said allowing the public to scrutinize the records is the best way to ensure no one tries to approve a tax exemption for a friend, relative or business partner.

Although he said he doesn't doubt the honesty of anyone in Cache County government, Sweeney said someone, someday might be tempted.

"Why put the temptation in people's way?" he asked. "Why make it possible for them to even think about it?"

Besides, he said, those who pay more taxes because the hardship applicants pay less should be able to review the applicants' information to determine whether the county is treating everyone fairly.

"If somebody in the tax district isn't paying their fair share, that money has to be paid by someone else," Sweeney said. "Those kinds of decisions need to be public."

But Daines said: "That's true of every program you have where someone receives a benefit from the government — whether it's unemployment or a tax exemption or anything else."

Besides, he said, hardship tax exemptions are relatively small. The maximum amount that can be waived is 50 percent of property taxes or $798, whichever is less. To enable taxpayers to determine the fairness of hardship property tax exemptions, Daines said he would release statistical information about the applicants, including the number of applicants who cited a medical condition, what medical conditions were cited, what percentage of applicants cited long-term unemployment as a factor, what percentage of applicants cited developmental disability as a factor, the average property values of those applying, how many applicants were caring for dependents and what types of applicants were granted relief.

"We'll give you all the information you want," he said. "We just won't tie it to an individual's name, his personal problems with his health or his personal finances."

Those in Washington County asking for information about hardship property tax exemptions would get it with sensitive personal information blacked out, said Deputy County Attorney Dave Patterson. But Daines said redacting personal and medical information renders the information useless.

"If you take all of their health situation and their financial difficulties, that's the whole core of the document," he said.

Like Cache County, Utah County considers the information in the applications private. Salt Lake County will release the names and home locations of those applying but not financial and medical information.

Box Elder County doesn't have a privacy policy for hardship tax exemptions, Auditor Tom Bennett said. If someone wanted the information, Bennett said, he would ask for a written request and refer it the county attorney.

Before Daines issued his opinion, Cache County officials cautioned applicants their information might be discussed at a public meeting where reporters could be taking notes, said Auditor Tamra Stones.

About two-thirds of those applying cite financial issues, not medical issues, she said.

In 2006, Stones said, 35 people applied for hardship exemptions in Cache County. So far this year, 32 people have applied, she said.

To automatically qualify for a hardship property tax exemption, state law requires applicants to be over 65, use their home as a permanent residence and make less than $26,941 a year.

But people who don't meet those requirements might still be eligible, Stones said. However, she said, they may have to submit medical bills, letters from doctors, financial statements and other information.

County officials then prepare a summary of each application, and the County Council votes on each request. Stones said she understands why applicants would not want the information made available to the public.

"They're already in rough circumstances," she said. "It's kind of like kicking a guy when he's down."