BERLIN – All ten residential property owners in Millsfield filed for 2013 property tax abatements under a poverty exemption.
The owners are arguing the Granite Reliable Power wind farm has increased property taxes and made it impossible to sell their properties in the unincorporated town.
The residents state they did not pay property taxes in 2013 because Millsfield's surplus was used to postpone the "exorbitant taxes" that have resulted from the valuation of the wind farm. But they argue once the surplus is used up, they will be faced with high taxes for property that has no market value. The abatement forms, all using the same language, state when the surplus is gone "our household income will not allow for payment of those taxes".
Unincorporated places Tax Collector Linda Harris reported on the abatement requests at the county commissioners monthly meeting Wednesday.
The requests angered County Commissioners Paul Grenier and Tom Brady who pointed out the county is waging a legal battle with the state Department of Revenue Administration over the valuation of the wind farm that currently is before the state Supreme Court. The pair said the county is also working with state representatives to address the issue through legislation.
"I just think this is a childish knee-jerk reaction," said Grenier. "It's time for those people to grow up."
Grenier said he is confident that legislation requiring DRA to abide by the $113 million valuation used in the county's payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement (PILOT) will be successful and cited the work by Rep. Larry Rappaport (R-Colebrook) to get a bill amended that addresses the issue.
"These people are not going to get a tax bill," he said.
Grenier warned that if the residents go through with their abatement petitions, they will be required to provide detailed personal financial documents to the county tax collector. He said it is an invasion process required to determine the applicant's inability to pay the tax.
Grenier said an independent appraisal would probably be required and suggested property owners who have mortgages could trigger banks to call in their loans by claiming their properties have zero value.
"This is not well thought out," he said.
Brady disputed the statement made in the requests that the Millsfield residents do not receive county services. He said the sheriff's department, nursing homes, register of deeds and other departments are all used by residents of the unincorporated places.
Brady said he has spent a lot of time working on the county's tax dispute with DRA over the valuation of the GRP. He noted the commission hired legal counsel to appeal the DRA's $228 million valuation for GRP to the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals and has appealed that board's decision to the state Supreme Court. Brady said he and other county officials met with Gov. Maggie Hassan and have testified on legislation requiring the state to recognize the $113 valuation used in the PILOT agreement.
Grenier said the county's unincorporated places are largely owned by industrial land owners and that ownership fuels the North Country's economy by providing wood and allowing public recreational access. He said it is his goal to continue the practice of operating those places so property owners pay no taxes and are able to maintain ownership. In most cases, revenues from timber tax and other sources cover any expenses. Asked if his goal applies to the unincorporated town of Dixville, Grenier said it did although he added if the hotel is rebuilt, Dixville could end up paying some property taxes.
Harris said three of the abatements were not received by the March 1 deadline and the commission voted to reject them. The commission approved Grenier's motion that a meeting be set up between the remaining seven applicants and County Administrator Jennifer Fish and other county officials to discuss the process so the Millsfield residents are aware of what will be required. Grenier said the county is required to consider the abatement requests but said the residents can withdraw them.
The seven applicants are Shawn and Victoria Cote, Luc and Louise Cote, Thomas Claflin, Mark and Sherrel Sandoe, Charles and Sonja Sheldon, Lewis and Paula Sweatt, and Kathleen and Wayne Urso. The assessments of the seven properties range from $60,300 to $304,254.
The Sandoes were present at the commission meeting and Sherrel Sandoe complained there is a lack of communication between residents and the commission. She said Wayne Urso serves as representative for the community and he cannot get responses from the county.
Count administrator Jennifer Fish said in the time she has served as administrator she has never received a call or e-mail from Urso. Brady said he responded to several e-mails but said he stopped when the e-mails from Urso got nasty.
Commissioner Rick Samson said he has met several times with Urso. Samson said he feels there is a lack of communications on both sides.
Fish said the commission holds monthly meetings and the delegation meets at least quarterly and both allow public comments.
Fish said she also wanted to make it clear the $495,000 annual PILOT payment for the GRP wind farm goes only to the two host communities of Dixville and Millsfield. She said the money does not go into the general county fund.
Sandoe said Urso has asked what the 2014 tax rate was going to be and could not find out. The commissioners responded that the 2014 tax rate is not by the DRA until late fall.
Sheriff Gerard Marcou said it is clear the Millsfield residents do not understand how the property tax system works. He urged both sides to work together and improve communications.
Grenier said over time, he believes the county's decision to enter into a PILOT agreement will prove to be advantageous for Millsfield and Dixville. He said the county's appraiser, George Sansoucy, has been told the GRP's wind farm will see significant depreciation in the near future. While the valuation is likely to drop, GRP is locked into a long-term agreement requiring the annual $495,000 payments.