News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, April 3, 2014
Stonington selectmen authorize return of tax-acquired properties

by Rich Hewitt

They weren’t happy about it, but they did it anyway.

Selectmen, at their March 24 meeting, signed release deeds for two properties that the town had acquired for non-payment of taxes, turning those properties back to the previous owners.

The decision came after Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris explained that although the town had filed the proper foreclosure notices, attorneys for both the town and the property owners indicated that because of a technicality, the foreclosure process was flawed.

The properties in question are the Eagull building on Main Street owned by Mike Connors and a home on Indian Point Road owned by Penn Rhodeen. This was the second time the selectmen have discussed these two properties and the only reason all five agreed to sign the deeds was because they would face legal action if they did not.

State law requires that the town follow specific guidelines regarding notification of property owners when their taxes are due, when they become overdue, when liens are placed on the properties and when the town is ready to take the property for non-payment. Although the town had followed those procedures and made necessary efforts to contact the two property owners, they apparently did not keep good enough records of those attempts.

“The fact that we sent those notices, doesn’t that stand as being a record?” asked Chairman Donna Brewer.

Not technically. The town has to keep a written record of each attempt to contact the property owners, according to Billings-Pezaris.

“We have to keep a log or book and record each attempt; we have to document our reasonable attempts to try to locate them,” she said. “We’ve done that, we just don’t have a book on it.”

Part of the problem is that at least one of the property owners has several addresses, both in and outside the country. That makes it doubly hard for the town’s clerks to track him down and ensure that he receives the notices.

The board was frustrated with the situation. Dick Larrabee said the board had done everything by the book and that it was the property owner’s responsibility to make sure the town knew how to contact him. Initially, Larrabee was willing to let the issue go to court.

“I say don’t sign the papers and let the judge decide,” he said. “They can explain to the judge why they don’t pay their taxes.”

Brewer also had reservations.

“It’s wrong,” she said. “It just doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t do it.”

“It’s a game for these people,” said Chris Betts. “They have a lawyer and anybody with a lawyer can play this game.”

That game, said Evelyn Duncan, hurts the rest of the town.

“We have so many people who do what they need to do to meet their responsibilities and keep taxes low,” she said, “then we’re faced with one or two people who choose not to accept that responsibility.”

She did not like the situation, but said she did not want to spend the money on the threatened court action and not win. That, said Billings-Pezaris, was a definite possibility. She said the town’s attorney had indicated that because of the technical problems with the process, the release deeds should be signed.

Ben Barrows also was reluctant to disregard the advice of the town attorney, but also wanted to make sure that the town would be in a better position in the future.

“We need to make sure we have the skills to thrive in this kind of environment,” he said. “We need to be prepared so that, maybe, we can play this game a little more adroitly.”

Although Larrabee and Brewer initially refused to sign, they eventually agreed and the deeds received the signatures of all five selectmen.

The deeds were released upon payment of some, but not all, of the back taxes. The way the rules work, Rhodeen had to pay only the 2011 property tax—$1,309—to regain title to his property. He still owes the 2012 taxes—$3,438—and the town holds a lien on the property for those back taxes.

Connors paid the 2011 and 2012 taxes—$1,984 and $2,031, respectively.

Both men also are overdue in paying the 2013 taxes and, according to Billings-Pezaris, the town is preparing to send out 30-day notices to them along with a number of other residents whose taxes are overdue. If the taxes are not paid within the 30 days, the town will place liens on those properties.

“We’re going to be right back here again in 30 days,” she said.

In other action, the selectmen:

• Accepted the bid from The First for the town’s 2014 tax anticipation note. The First offered to issue the TAN loan of $600,000 on an as needed basis, with an interest rate of .77 percent. That was the lowest of the three bids received.

• Accepted the recommendation from harbor committee and approved the sale of the former harbormaster boat.

• Heard from Hendrik Gideonse of Brooklin who is promoting the idea of creating a county charter commission to draft a charter for Hancock County. Gideonse has met with officials from towns around the county and left information for the selectmen to review.

• Met with Jennifer Larrabee, owner of Tempest in a Tea Pot, who wanted to lease a small vacant room in the former school building to open a retail shop to sell cups of tea made from the blends the company prepares. Tempest already rents space in the old kitchen area. Despite concerns about congestion in and around the small room, the selectmen left it to Billings-Pezaris to arrange the lease. Larrabee planned to open the retail shop as soon as possible.