Auditor candidate claimed two property tax exemptions

Bump entitled to only one, state officials say

Susanne M. Bump and her husband received exemptions on their home in Great Barrington and on their condo in South Boston. Susanne M. Bump and her husband received exemptions on their home in Great Barrington and on their condo in South Boston.
By Stefanie Geisler and Walter V. Robinson
Globe Correspondents / October 7, 2010

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Suzanne M. Bump, the Democratic nominee for state auditor, considers the Berkshire town of Great Barrington her home. She and her husband vote and register their cars there. It is the address she lists on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Because of that, she receives a benefit: exemption from paying a personal property tax levied on homeowners who are not full-time residents.

But Bump and her husband, Paul F. McDevitt, have saved more than $6,000 in Boston property taxes since 2006 by reporting that a condominium they own in South Boston is their principal residence, according to tax and property records examined by the Globe.

In an interview Monday, Bump insisted that she is legally entitled to both tax breaks.

“There is nothing wrong with what I am doing,’’ said Bump, a lawyer, who, if elected auditor next month, would be responsible for ensuring that taxpayer money is used appropriately. “I am completely within the law, both the letter and the spirit of the law,’’ she said.

On Tuesday, however, the state Department of Revenue said that no taxpayer can claim residential status in more than one community in order to receive multiple tax breaks.

“A taxpayer can only have one principal or primary residence for property tax purposes,’’ spokesman Robert Bliss said after conferring with Revenue Department tax specialists. “You cannot take a property tax break in two different communities.’’

His opinion was echoed by two assessing commissioners and the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers.

“You cannot say you have two principal residences; pick one,’’ said Anthony Trodella, principal assessor in Marlborough, which, along with Boston, is one of 14 communities that offer property tax exemptions to people whose homes are their principal residences.

According to the Globe review of public records, Bump and her husband are tapping into a distinct property tax exemption in each community, both designed to benefit homeowners who set their roots down in the community.

In Boston, they applied for a program that provides a tax reduction “to every taxpayer who owns residential property and occupies the property as his or her principal residence,’’ according to the application form.

Under the state law that allows cities and towns to offer this exemption, homeowners must show only that they listed the address as their home on their state tax return.

Bump and McDevitt have filed their tax return from their South Boston address since 2006. They applied for the exemption for the first time, for the 2006-2007 fiscal year, in March 2007, when Bump was serving as Governor Deval Patrick’s secretary of labor and economic development, a post she held until late last year.

On the application, signed by McDevitt, he checked a box declaring that they owned and occupied a home in South Boston and that it was their principal residence on Jan. 1, 2006.

The exemption has cut their annual Boston property tax bill nearly in half. For the first four tax years, they paid $6,974 in taxes to the city of Boston. Without the exemption, they would have owed nearly $6,000 more. In the current tax year, which runs through June 30, a tax bill that would otherwise be about $3,300 will be about $1,800.

In Great Barrington, a community of many second homes, the town imposes a personal property tax on those whose principal residence is elsewhere.

Bump purchased the house in the Great Barrington village of Housatonic as a second home in 1999 and said she paid the added tax assessed on nonresidents until 2002.

But that year, she and McDevitt decided to make the town their principal home. They became exempt when they registered to vote there, signifying to the town that Great Barrington was their full-time residence. The tax break has saved her an estimated $300 to $400 a year.

Last Saturday, when the Globe first asked Bump why she and her husband claimed a residential tax break in Boston, as well, she said she had no knowledge of it.

A few minutes later, she said: “It is reasonable to expect that at the time the decision was made, I was aware of it. But years later, I don’t recall the details.’’

In that interview, Bump described Great Barrington as her principal residence, but then acknowledged that she and her husband had declared their Boston condo their principal home to qualify for the city’s program.

On Monday, after reviewing her own tax records and public documents provided to her by the Globe, Bump sought to explain the apparent contradiction by making a legal distinction between the two homes, clarifying that Boston was her only legal principal residence.

“Great Barrington is my primary residence; that’s where I have a three-bedroom house that I consider my home,’’ Bump said. “I principally reside in the city of Boston. Primary residence, principal residence — I see them as two different things.’’

But Bump sidestepped questions about whether she believes it is justifiable or appropriate for her to claim both tax breaks. “It’s quite immaterial what I believe,’’ she said. “As a matter of law, it is appropriate.’’

Late Tuesday, after the Globe informed Bump that state and local tax officials believe she is not entitled to both tax breaks, she issued a statement saying that if either Boston or Great Barrington “taxing authorities notifies me that my tax status needs to be reviewed, I will accommodate them.’’

Ron Rakow, Boston’s assessing commissioner, said the city’s only concern is whether Bump is qualified for the tax exemption, which he said she is.

“They filed the application under the pains and penalties of perjury, saying that this was their principal residence,’’ Rakow said. “And that information was verified through their filing of the income tax return at that address.’’

Karen Avalle, who was the Great Barrington town assessor for 15 years, said her office would have had no reason to believe that Bump was anything but a full-time resident. Christopher Lamarre, who took over last month as Great Barrington’s assessor, declined to be interviewed about Bump’s eligibility for the tax break.

Bump, a former state representative from Braintree, is running for auditor against Republican Mary Z. Connaughton. Bump’s campaign website declares that she and McDevitt “now reside in the village of Housatonic, within the Berkshires town of Great Barrington, although their jobs cause them to spend the work week in South Boston.’’

Assessing officials consulted by the Globe, including Avalle, said there is no way Bump can be entitled to both tax breaks.

“You can only have one residence, one domicile,’’ Avalle said in an interview. “They can’t have it both ways; they have to pick one.’’

Gary J. McCabe, chief assessor in Brookline, which also has a residential tax exemption: “If you get a residential tax exemption in Brookline, you should not be taking a personal property tax exemption somewhere else.’’

In state tax law, lawmakers used the word domicile in establishing eligibility for personal property tax exemptions, like that given in Great Barrington, and the phrase “principal residence’’ as a requirement for the exemption on the real estate tax, like that given in Boston.

McCabe said he sees no distinction between the two, and Bump did not raise the issue with the Globe. Anthony P. Polito, a tax law specialist at Suffolk Law School, said that even if the different wording afforded Bump a loophole, “I don’t think the voters would be happy.’’

This article was reported by Stefanie Geisler, Gal Tziperman Lotan, Cecilia Akuffo, and Callum Borchers for a seminar in investigative reporting at Northeastern University. Their work was overseen by Walter V. Robinson, Northeastern journalism professor and former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson can be reached at Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.