In early November, Carol Kelly ripped opened a letter in her East Falmouth home to find an official-looking document ominously titled “tax lien citation."
To her disbelief, Kelly learned she and her husband were defendants in a legal action filed against them by the City of Boston for failure to pay taxes.
The city, it gradually became apparent to Kelly, was one step away from permanently stripping her and her husband of the one thing they owned in Boston: a parking space in an underground garage.
“What taxes?” Kelly thought. “This must be a mistake.”
More than 20 years ago, Kelly, 76, and her husband, Gerald Husted, 83, sold their one-bedroom condominium in the Charles River Park complex and and moved out of state. But they held on to their parking space, thinking they might someday return to live in the city. In the meantime, they rented it, currently for $330 a month. (They also pay a condo fee of $114 a month to help maintain the sprawling garage, which is near Massachusetts General Hospital.)
Back in the 1990s, when Kelly and Husted owned their condo, parking spaces were not considered taxable. But new interpretations of the law, backed by the courts, changed that, and the City of Boston added the couple’s parking space to the tax rolls in 2009.
But by then, Kelly and Husted had spent 10 years living in Washington, D.C., followed by two years in their current home in East Falmouth. The couple say they notified the postal service of their address changes, but they have never received a single piece of mail from the City of Boston in the decade since their parking space became taxable.
To this day, city tax bills list them as living in Washington.
“We had no idea,” Kelly said of the change in tax policy. “We received zero communications from the city."
Kelly and Husted are not challenging the city’s right to tax their parking space. They are quite willing to pay about $5,000 in back taxes. (The current assessed value of their parking space is $47,000.)
But what they object to is the nearly $5,500 in interest and penalties tacked on.
I think it’s self-evident that real estate is taxable. And the failure to receive a bill doesn’t let you off the hook, in most cases. As the city said in response to an inquiry from me, “It is incumbent upon a property owner to seek out tax bills if they have not been receiving them.”
The city also pointed out that, by law, it is barred from waiving any amount of interest and penalty charges in tax cases above $15.
Yet, there should be an exception when a certain kind of property, long considered nontaxable, becomes taxable. Then, the burden should shift to the city to “seek out” property owners and advise them of the change.
And if the city had tried, it could have found the couple’s current address — because it has been in its files since 2008.
Let me explain. The tax lien notice the couple finally received in November did not come from the city but from the company that manages Hawthorne Place, the two-building, 480-unit condominium complex that includes the parking garage.
The property management company had received the tax lien citation, which is a court-issued document, from the condo association, which apparently had received it from the city. As a courtesy, one of the property managers took it upon herself to look up the couple’s address in the management company’s files, and mailed it to them in East Falmouth.
I called the management company wanting to know how it was that it had the couple’s current address.
The manager checked the records and verified that either Kelly or Husted had notified the property manager of a change of address on Dec. 26, 2007, three weeks after they moved into their East Falmouth home.
The manager also discovered a May 31, 2008, letter from the city assessing department asking for a breakdown of parking space owners.
Ten days later, the city received a spreadsheet listing the names and mailing addresses of the owners of parking spaces, including the East Falmouth address for Gerald Husted. The city told me it had relied instead on the address Kelly and Husted listed on a deed four years earlier.
Kelly, a retired Department of Labor lawyer, said the city should have checked its own files after the taxes went unpaid.
“This could have been cleared up years ago with a simple phone call or letter to the right address,” she said. “We were not that hard to find."
I agree. The city should figure out a way to give Kelly and Husted a break.