If a fool and his money are soon parted, what does it mean that the state is holding onto tens of millions of dollars worth of unclaimed assets?
That's what Barre resident Wallace Nolen aims find out. Nolen has raised the hackles of state and local officials for the past few years thanks to voluminous requests for public information—and suing town officials who ignore his requests.
For the past month, Nolen has been accumulating the names and contact information for state and local officials in an effort to alert Vermonters that millions of dollars of their money is being held. In some cases, they are state and local employees. In other cases, he wants them put on notice that folks living in their towns are owed money.
To reunite enough people with their lost money that the raid on the Vermont treasury forces the state into bankruptcy—or at least cripples it to the point that real budget-cutting measures need to be enacted.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do when people start filing claims en masse,” said Nolen.
Treasurer Jeb Spaulding said the state could find it difficult to pay back all the money it owes if it came in at once. In all, the state is holding about $45 million in unclaimed assets to tens of thousands of people.
"If it all were to come at a time when we were short on cash, it would be hard to do," notes Spaulding. "But, we've never had a huge run at once, and the money is being utilized by the state in the meantime. Of all the potential financial challenges I could spend some imagining and planning for, this isn't one of them."
That's because Spaulding said no matter how hard he tries, not everyone wants to be reunited with their money.
Nolen said the state could do more to reunite people with its money. While the Douglas administration talks a good game about lowering taxes, Nolen notes that taxpayers are funding about $150,000 to pay for ads touting the treasurer and his website.
"It amounts to nothing more than a political ad for Jeb Spaulding," said Nolen. "All the ads say is to call his office or go on his website. If they truly wanted to turn around and disperse this money, they could—but they need to reach out to people more directly. The state wants to hold onto it so they can use it for other purposes."
In 2007, a federal judge in California ordered the state to send out letters on official letterhead to claimants (who are owed a certain amount or more). At the time, the state was holding about $5 billion of unclaimed assets, adding about $900 million a year.
If Spaulding, or Gov. Jim Douglas, wanted to "stimulate the state economy," they would send out similar letters before being forced to do so by a judge. Nolen may seek to do just that in court.
“It’s a big can of worms and the news media hasn’t dug into this kind of stuff,” adds Nolen.
Spaulding said it's in his best interest to reunite people with their money, and his office is doing all it can.
"Look, I'm a statewide elected officer and nothing gets people more excited than getting money, so it's in my best interest as a politician to make sure they get it," said Spaulding. "So, if someone has some good new ideas, I'm all for it."
Spaulding said his office is always trying to improve its outreach, but it does get harder to unite people with their money as time goes by. In some cases, if the original owner dies, then the money is passed on to a spouse or relative.
In fact, some of Vermont's more prominent pols are on the list, including former Gov. Phil Hoff, State Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden), Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham), and the campaign committees of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), former Gov. Howard Dean and current Gov. Jim Douglas.
Each year, the treasurer's office prints out copies of who is owed money by municipality and by legislative district. The municipal lists are sent to town clerks and the legislative district lists are given to individual legislators. No one knows who the people are, or where they live, other than local workers and elected officials.
State law was changed this year so the tax department can share mailing addresses with the treasurer's office if a social security number or tax identification number matches someone from the unclaimed property list.
On average, people are owed amounts in the hundreds of dollars. However, Spaulding did note a recent payout was in the millions. It was the estate of a woman who had died, and her heirs ended up in court over the settlement.
"What's interesting is, with the economy being the way it is, we're seeing people claim smaller sums," said Spaulding. "It was fairly typical in previous years to see people ignore amounts less than $100 or so, and now people are claiming everything they can get."
To find out if the state has some missing money of yours, click here.
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