Aroostook developer argues Caribou property not assessed fairly

2 weeks ago

CARIBOU, Maine – An Aroostook developer wants county commissioners to award him a tax abatement based on what he views as an unfair assessment of the former Sitel building in Caribou, which he owns.

In 2021, Dana Cassidy, who owns multiple properties in Caribou and Presque Isle, requested that the value for his property at 63 Sweden Street in Caribou be reduced from $1,383,000 to $150,000. Caribou’s board of assessors denied that request in 2022, saying that Cassidy did not prove that the city used different factors when assessing his building or unjustly discriminated against him.

Cassidy appealed that decision to the Aroostook County commissioners, who initially said they lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November that the commissioners erred in that judgment and needed to hear Cassidy’s appeal.

The property at 63 Sweden St. is the location of Caribou’s former Sitel customer call service center, which closed in 2019. Cassidy purchased the over 26,000-square-foot, two-story building in 2020. He initially hoped to find a potential developer for upstairs residential apartments and downstairs office space, possibly another telemarketing company.

CARIBOU, Maine — July 8, 2024 — Dana Cassidy addresses the Aroostook County Commissioners Monday about a potential tax abatement for property he owns at 63 Sweden St. in Caribou. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

But the property is still vacant and is not producing income. Cassidy told commissioners Monday that issues with the building’s sprinkler system, resulting in mold, and higher than necessary taxes have deterred potential buyers and developers of the property.

In March 2022, Cassidy changed his abatement request to $210,000 after consulting brokers with RE/MAX County, who estimated the property’s market value at $210,000.

On Monday, Cassidy said that he purchased the Sitel building for $50,000. 

RE/MAX Broker Leigh Smith compared 63 Sweden St. to several similarly sized buildings in and near Caribou: 60 Access Highway, the 32,000-square-foot Evergreen Lanes building, which sold for $130,000 in 2020 when vacant; 52 Sweden St., the 5,655-square-foot SaviLinx call center building, sold for $55,000 in 2020; and 232 Main St. in Fort Fairfield, 22,000 square feet, sold for $185,000 in 2022, according to documents that Cassidy provided.

Commissioners said that they can only compare Cassidy’s property to other properties in Caribou in order to consider his abatement request, not to any in Fort Fairfield or other nearby towns.

Cassidy took issue with Penny Thompson, the city’s tax assessor in 2021, valuing the Sitel building at $1.385 million for that year when Smith’s opinion estimates the value at $210,000.

“[Smith] took the selling price [of each property], looked at the conditions, locations and whether they were occupied, and in the end came up with a factual figure [for the Sitel site],” Cassidy said. “It’s factual because all these properties were sold. They weren’t on the market.”

When determining a building’s tax value, the city also factors in several “measures of depreciation” to determine if the building’s value will increase or decrease: physical deterioration, functional obsolescence and economic or external obsolescence.

If a piece of property has been vacant for 14 months prior to April 1 of the tax year, and the taxpayer has owned that property for 14 months before April 1, that person can apply for tax relief based on “functional obsolescence,” per a policy of the city’s board of assessors, Thompson noted. 

Cassidy said that before Monday’s hearing he was unaware of that policy within the city. Thompson stated that she and Cassidy had discussed other properties of his in the past, and the city board of assessors adjusted his property values for vacant buildings.

Economic or external obsolescence considers factors about surrounding properties that the property owner cannot control, like physical conditions and whether a business property closes and becomes vacant, Thompson said.

As an assessor, Thompson last inspected the property in 2019, before the building’s sprinkler malfunctioned and began causing mold.

Regardless of how the property’s value is assessed, Thompson said that Cassidy failed to prove to the board of assessors that her calculations used different factors than that of other city properties, that he received “unjust discrimination,” that his property was overvalued or that the assessment contained “illegality, error or irregularity.”

County Commission Chairperson Paul Underwood questioned whether Smith’s opinion as a broker was sufficient evidence to prove any of those accusations.

A broker’s opinion does not take into account what methods the city uses to calculate tax value, Underwood noted. In addition, Smith’s opinion does not state that he calculated the market value specifically for Cassidy’s tax abatement appeal.

“You have the burden of proving that you were not being assessed the same way as everybody else,” Underwood said to Cassidy.

The county commissioners expect to vote on Cassidy’s abatement request at their next regular meeting Wednesday, July 17 at 1 p.m. at the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office building, 25 School St. in Houlton.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how the city calculates and reimburses property tax values and mischaracterized past conversations between Cassidy and Thompson.