2017-01-13 / Front Page

Board will review abatement requests

Town manager optimistic that remediation may settle tax issue prior to February review meetings
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

After receiving a decision more than four months ago from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court that former Tax Assessor Paul Lesperance had erred in the way he handled a 2012 property tax revaluation, the Board of Assessment Review is scheduled to host three meetings in February.

The meetings will determine how to handle the series of tax abatement appeals from Pine Point, Higgins Beach and Prout’s Neck residents that occurred as a result.

Town Manager Tom Hall is optimistic the matter can be settled before that. An “amicable” remediation session was held Thursday, Dec. 22. He said it “may make sense” to continue to pursue remediation and forgo the Board of Assessment Review meetings. That, however, would only happen if all parties agree to it.

Hall is scheduled to update council members on the subject at their Jan. 18 meeting.

“If not, we will proceed through the process as scheduled,” he said.

The court, in its Aug. 16 filing, found Scarborough’s practice of combining abutting parcels under common ownership for assessing purposes was illegal.

The court noted the practice violated two Maine laws: “the statutory requirement that each parcel of real estate much be assessed separately” and “the constitutional requirement that real estate be assessed at just value.”

“Because each parcel of real estate must be assessed separately and according to just value, regardless of whether the parcel abuts another parcel in common ownership,” the court found “the town’s rationale for the abutting property program is not reasonable and cannot serve as the basis for the town’s assessments.”

The residents unsuccessfully tried for abatements from Lesperance and the Board of Assessment Review and then took the town to court over the matter. The Business and Consumer Court ruled against the group of residents citing they did not “have a standing to seek remedial relief based on the methods used by the town.” Upon receiving that judgment, the group appealed to the Maine Superior Judicial Court.

Back in August, Hall said Scarborough’s methodology of assessing abutting lots under common ownership was in line with a “widely accepted” statewide practice. Scarborough Tax Assessor Matthew Sturgis said the practice said has since been discontinued by the town.

The appellants took exception with the property tax revaluation because they felt their property values were being unfairly increased and the revaluation was based on “flawed data” and that Lesperance “arbitrarily targeted” waterfront and water-influenced neighborhoods.”

While the practice of the abutting property program violated state statute, the court found Lesperance did not unduly target the waterfront and water-influenced neighborhoods, citing “an assessor need not attain absolutely equity when revaluation properties; rather, only rough equity is required.”

While the court indicated the town had erred with the abutting lot assessment practice, it did not specify a way to make amends. That will be the responsibility of the Board of Assessment Review if an agreement cannot be obtained soon.

The Board of Assessment Review, which meets on an as-needed basis to, according to its website, review “appeals from decisions of the assessor regarding applications for abatements of property taxes” in accordance with Maine law, will meet Monday, Feb. 6, Tuesday, Feb. 7 and Monday, Feb. 13 to take up the issue.

Sturgis said the goal of the meetings is aimed at “figuring out the harm done by the methodology that was applied in terms of abutting lots.”

The abatement money will come from a pool of money specifically set aside for tax abatement requests.

If held, the first two meetings, Sturgis said, would include presentations from the town attorney and the attorney representing the appellants. The meeting on Feb. 13 would include board deliberations.

The tax abatement appeal process has been long, time consuming and expensive for the town. According to information from Bernstein Shur, the town’s attorney, the town has spent slightly more than $262,000 in legal fees and another $350 in associated costs. Bergen & Parkinson, which represented the Board of Assessment Review throughout the process, has billed the town another $26,564.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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