Caribou City Council delays mill rate vote due to home adjustments

11 months ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou city councilors will set the annual mill rate at a special meeting July 10.

This is the sixth time in seven years the city has delayed setting the mill rate, breaking the city’s charter, which states councilors must set the rate by June 30.

Last year, Caribou’s mill rate was 23.55, flat for a third year. 

The council tabled the vote Monday so City Manager Penny Thompson can consult with Steven Joseph Salley, the city’s contracted tax assessor, on final figures related to market adjustments for Caribou homes.

In 2022, the Maine Revenue Service allowed Caribou to certify properties at 95 percent, rather than the full 100 percent. That caused tax exemptions, including homestead, to decrease, which led to some residents’ tax bills increasing.

For instance, a home that was sold in 2022 for $163,000 had only been valued at $84,400, according city sales from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022.

That’s why the city is conducting a market-based adjustment of property values, with Salley’s assistance, so all homes are valued equitably, Thompson said.

“This is not a full revaluation project,” Thompson said. “The goal is to have equity in the tax assessments. We do not want one type of property to be under assessed while another type is overassessed.”

City staff and Salley, who is based in Pittsfield, should complete the work before July 10, Thompson said.

The council’s special meeting to set the tax rate will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, July 10, at the Caribou Municipal Building. The tax rate will likely be the only item on the agenda, said Mayor Jody Smith.

The rubble at 7 Water St. where an apartment building once stood. The building burned in a January fire that killed one resident. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

Councilors also voted unanimously to declare 7 Water St. a dangerous building and give its owners, Brian and Sharon Bickford of Lewiston, a final chance to provide a plan for cleaning up the property’s damage on their own.

The building at 7 Water St. burned in a January fire that resulted in the death of Jason Donahue, 30, who lived there. Since then, the rubble has been a major blight on a street that once housed popular downtown businesses.

Former code enforcement officer Ken Murchison recommended that councilors declare the building’s former location dangerous after his attempts to reach the Bickfords were unsuccessful.

The building had not been insured before the fire, but NorState Federal Credit Union put forced place insurance on the property in April. The Bickfords filed for bankruptcy May 15 and owe two years of back taxes, Thompson said. 

Chris Leger, the attorney representing the Bickfords in bankruptcy court, questioned why the city held the initial public hearing without notifying the couple. 

The council’s declaration Monday is not final, Thompson said. A building’s first public hearing gives the city authority to notify property owners about a follow-up hearing, after which councilors can formally declare a building dangerous. 

The council scheduled the second public hearing for July 24 and served the Bickfords with a legal notice. If councilors officially declare 7 Water St. dangerous, they can formalize a plan for cleaning the property.

The city will incur clean-up costs but can attempt to charge the Bickfords for those expenses, Thompson said.

Councilors took the same action for 24 Park St., a home Murchison said has been vacant since 2012 after the death of homeowner Jeffrey Mueller. He had lived there with his wife, Laurie Mueller.

The city sent the Muellers a notice of violation in 2010 for allegedly leaving their basement door open and not mowing their lawn. That year, the city was notified of the home’s impending foreclosure.

The city sent Laurie Mueller a violation notice in 2014, claiming weed and brush growth exceeded the legally allowed 10 inches, presenting a fire hazard and potential to attract wild animals.

Mueller’s home was foreclosed in 2020 after the city sent several more notices of violation alleging the foundation was in danger of collapsing, Thompson said.

That year, the Dallas, Texas-based Mr. Cooper Property Preservation purchased the home but has not made necessary repairs, Murchison said. 

Murchison was unable to reach representatives from Mr. Cooper prior to retiring as code enforcement officer in May. 

On June 15, the city learned that the home’s foreclosure was never finalized, so the home’s mortgage was discharged. That means Mueller still legally owns the home but without a mortgage, Thompson said.

Thompson said in past conversations, Mueller did not claim responsibility for 24 Park St., since the home was foreclosed. 

A final public hearing to potentially declare 24 Park St. dangerous will be held July 24 at the next regular city council meeting. The city will notify Laurie Mueller of the hearing.

In other business, the City Council presented Gary Cook and Keith Brown with Spirit of America Awards. Cook was recognized for volunteering at the Caribou United Baptist Church food pantry and Brown for helping to maintain Caribou’s recreational trails.

Councilors congratulated two sets of new business owners: John and Rae Rossignol will become the new owners of Bechard’s Grille at Skyway Plaza in July, and Michael and Pat Cyr now own the Big Bang Theater, formerly The Caribou Theater, on Sweden Street.

The council recognized Caribou Rehab & Nursing for 50 years in the city and wished happy birthday to resident Anna Roberts, who was honored as Caribou’s oldest resident last summer. Roberts will turn 106 on July 5.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated information about the city’s tax assessment process and the properties at 7 Water St. and 24 Park St.