Major increase in taxes debated at New Sweden selectmen’s meeting

12 years ago

By Lisa Wilcox
Staff Writer

NEW SWEDEN — When New Sweden’s selectmen arrived at the town office for their routine meeting on Sept. 18, it was immediately obvious the meeting would need to be moved to the larger room downstairs to accommodate the group of citizens who had gathered to witness and participate in the meeting.

The citizens had not stopped by for a simple hello or show of support. Quite the opposite. The group was upset over recent tax increases that had, in a lot of cases, doubled or even tripled their tax bill from 2011 and they wished to voice their frustration with the selectmen and find out what, if anything could be done.

“The state of Maine has had a personal property tax law on the books since 1985,” wrote citizen Janet McDonald in an email explaining the group’s concern. “It gave municipalities the choice as to whether or not they wished to enforce it. New Sweden had a partial, incomplete list of those who have paid some personal property tax in the past, but the list was selective, inequitable and, upon further research, illegal. They have repeatedly handled the application of this tax incorrectly and included a threat at the bottom of the form indicating you would lose your right to appeal should you not comply by a certain date. The date, in some cases, was itself outdated. The form was received by many after the date had passed.”

At the meeting, there was agreement that the town had mishandled delivery of the news of the tax increase to the citizens and that numerous clerical errors occurred. The majority of citizens voiced their concern over the status of the current economy and the fact that no one can afford to come up with so much extra money in such a short amount of time.

There was also confusion and added concern over a request for a list of personal property that would also be subject to tax that was sent out to the community. Based on the comments made at the meeting, citizens were receiving the notice of this tax with very little time being allowed for it to be completed and returned.

“You will comply or you will lose your right to appeal, ” New Sweden resident Ernest Stein quoted from the notice sent out by Code Enforcement Officer Lewis Cousins. “I got it on Wednesday and had to have it back on Thursday,” Stein continued. “I called Mr. Cousins and got no word back. I want to know, who authorized the threat?”

Head Selectman Ray Hildebrand promised those who voiced their concern over the short timeframe to comply with the notice that he would personally contact Cousins for clarification and, in the meantime, the timeframe should be considered an “as soon as possible” basis.

The most critical concern the majority of the crowd expressed was over the reasoning behind the tax increase. Many believed it was due to the tax commitment, which increased from $473,000 last year to $737,000 this year. They blamed the increase on the budget drafted and approved by the selectmen. Many others also questioned their higher property assessment and could not understand how their property had been assessed at such a higher value than last year when no improvements had been made to the property.

Senior Selectman Doug Anderson attempted to explain the new assessments. “You have been paying on the assessments on your property on the 1996 value, and the selectmen at that time also saw fit to take $44,000 a year out of the undesignated fund to lower your taxes,” he said. “The state came down on us and said, ‘You will reassess.’ So 2011, they said we had to come up with a reassessment from 1996 to 2012. Had they done the reassessment in 1996, it would have been graduated. The undesignated fund was down to $50,000. We would have ended up in the negative and had to borrow money to keep operating, so you see the debacle that we were in.”

Kathy Mazzuchelli was one of the first citizens to offer her thoughts on the situation.

“There’s no question that everybody in this room has the same feelings,” she said. “We may not agree on what the issue is, but we all agree that the biggest problem that we have right now is our tax commitment. When you look at the size of the community, the demographic of the community, the socioeconomic environment of the community, we’re at a breaking point right now. There is just no question.”

Mazzuchelli suggested that the selectmen schedule meetings to discuss the problem and figure out what can be done in the future.

“There’s nothing we can do this year,” she stated. “We’ve all got to dig deep. Every one of us is struggling. I’ve got a job, and I’m still struggling to pay for a $2,000 some odd tax increase. Nothing we can do about it this year. But what we need to do is have a community conversation.”

Resident Daryan Swanson followed Mazzuchelli’s comments with his own take on the situation, expressing his disappointment with the selectmen.

“I would just like to add we have a representative government and we have selected selectmen. You have failed us,” he accused. “It’s not a matter of us coming together to discuss things. We’ve asked you to represent us and do the right thing. And with this commitment, you signed off on everything at the highest figure. You approved it across the board and that has put us in a deep hole. You have ignored our financial needs. You have damaged businesses, homes and families. And I think that is the factor. It’s not about getting together and, ‘Kumbaya, let’s talk about things.’ We expressed our concern to you and trust you to make the right decision. That’s representative government and that’s my point I wanted to make.”

Swanson’s comments were met with a round of applause from the crowd. Selectman Hildebrand countered that there was no community involvement in the drafting of the budget.

“We’ve been given a job to do. We do look at the budget, etc. as cleanly and as carefully as we can. Now some of us are fairly new, and that’s no excuse. I’ve lived in the town here for 34 years, some of you have lived here from birth, but this is what makes a selectmen’s meeting work. What goes on elsewhere is anybody’s business. But if we don’t hear it and we don’t have input, then we have to go on the best knowledge we have. When it comes time to start formulating the budget, we’d love to hear from you. There’s nothing to stop anyone from gathering at a selectmen’s meeting and saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to have some insight.’ and also if you have ideas.”

The meeting continued with similar comments from many citizens, some of whom agreed that more community participation should take place during the planning of the budget. A petition originated by resident David Tardie was also circulated through the crowd, gathering signatures from those who felt the option to close the New Sweden school should be put on a ballot for community vote. Once enough signatures are gathered, the petition will be presented to the school board. It was mentioned and agreed that no one from the community ever showed up to the school board meetings to voice their concern over the school’s administration and budget. The crowd was informed the next school board meeting would be Thursday, Oct. 4 at 6:30 at the New Sweden school and all were encouraged to attend.

The meeting also proved useful to some of the citizens by clarifying that equipment used in farming and any personal property valued under $1,000 did not need to be claimed on the personal property form. Selectman Hildebrand reiterated that the tax laws are available at the Town Office for anyone to access whenever they have a question. Mention was also made of abatements and tax refunds that are available to anyone who may qualify.

The gathering concluded with the selectmen attempting to continue with their regular business, but the majority of the crowd remained and bantered among themselves. The selectmen quietly conducted their meeting as the debate raved on. The next meeting will be on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m. The New Sweden selectmen meet every two weeks.