Boston city government runs on property taxes, the dominant source of municipal revenue that helps pay for teachers, snowplows, and police. Yet a Globe review of all the top mayoral candidates’ city tax histories found that one of the leading contenders has routinely failed to pay her bills on time.
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George and her husband have been late paying property taxes on their Dorchester home every year since at least 2014, records show. The couple is currently up to date, but records show late tax payments are part of a longstanding, broader pattern that includes their cars and businesses.
In 2018 and 2019, Essaibi George and her husband did not pay their motor vehicle excise taxes on time, with two bills that were so late they were sent to collections, records show. In 2015, Essaibi George paid off two state tax liens totaling $14,000 filed against her business, the popular Dorchester knitting store the Stitch House.
Essaibi George, who holds an at-large seat, declined an interview request Wednesday, and her campaign did not address a list of questions. In a statement, a spokeswoman said, “all of Councilor Essaibi George’s taxes are paid.”
The Globe reviewed eight years of property and motor vehicle tax records for the leading mayoral candidates. Most had relatively few blemishes.
Another candidate, state Representative Jon Santiago, was behind on property taxes when he launched his campaign in February, record show. Santiago settled his bill on June 17, paying $3,429, which included $160 in interest and $10 in fees, according to the city. His campaign said Santiago had paid off his mortgage last year a week before deploying to Kuwait for several months as a captain with the US Army Reserve.
Santiago’s taxes had been automatically paid through his mortgage. While overseas and upon his return, he forgot to make two tax payments on his own after paying off his loan.
“When I became aware, I paid them in full and have never otherwise been late,” he said in a statement.
Boston has no city income tax, making property tax its main source of revenue, accounting for nearly three out of every four dollars that flow into the city’s coffers. For the candidate that wins in November, property tax revenue will be the lifeblood that allows them to deliver on campaign promises large and small.
Voters understand property taxes because they pay them, noted Samuel R. Tyler, the retired president of the fiscal watchdog Boston Municipal Research Bureau.
“There’s an expectation that the candidates running for mayor have their own finances in order,” Tyler said. “It’s an indicator of sorts about how . . . [a candidate] as mayor might manage the city’s finances.”
Acting Mayor Kim Janey has paid her property taxes on time and does not own a car, according to records obtained through the state open record law. City Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu and her husband have also paid their property taxes on time, but were two or more weeks late paying excise tax on a car in 2014 and faced a $5 fee, records show.
John Barros, the city’s former economic development chief, and his wife have paid their property taxes on time, but made late motor vehicle excise payments in 2018 and 2011, records show. The same was true for City Councilor Andrea Campbell and her husband, who also paid their property taxes on time, but were late on a motor vehicle tax bill in 2017.
Failure to pay property taxes on time could impact a campaign, said political science professor Maurice Cunningham, who recently retired from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“It will create a political problem simply because it’s the bedrock of community revenue for Boston and many other places,” Cunningham said. “And so for that tax to be late, I think is somewhat significant.”
Professor Paul Watanabe downplayed late tax payments — so long as the candidates haven’t run afoul of the IRS. In Boston, the mayor manages financial experts, but does not personally balance the city’s books.
“No mayor sits there with a green eyeshade and goes through and starts figuring out who gets paid and who doesn’t get paid and which bills get paid,” said Watanabe, of UMass Boston. “That’s sort of a misconception.”
Shortly after Essaibi George launched her campaign for mayor in January, she underscored the city’s reliance on property taxes. She, along with other city councilors, proposed squeezing more revenue from universities, hospitals, and other nonprofits that do not have to pay taxes on their property holdings.
“Too many institutions are not contributing their fair share, despite owning almost half the land in this city,” Essaibi George said in a statement to the Boston Herald. “That’s a ton of money that we’re missing out on, that Boston families are not seeing the benefits of, because we’ve been too complacent for too long.”
Essaibi George and her husband’s tax woes stretch back years. The problems first surfaced during her successful 2015 campaign for City Council, when she downplayed late payments as “an oversight on our part.” The couple paid more than $30,000 that year to get their business and property taxes up to date.
But Essaibi George’s tax issues have continued since she took office, records show. Essaibi George and her husband, Doug, have persistently failed to pay their taxes on time each year. In 2011, the city filed an “instrument of taking” against their Mayhew Street home, preserving the right to seize land because of unpaid taxes, but the bill was ultimately paid.