Scarborough property tax appeals could go to court
SCARBOROUGH — Coastal residents who are challenging their property tax assessments aren't optimistic about an audit review expected from the Maine Department of Revenue Services.
"We have very low expectations as to what will come from the state," Riversands Drive resident Don Petrin said in an email last week about the review that follows a July 15 meeting with state Supervisor of Municipal Services Mike Rogers, auditor Steven Salley, Petrin and his Riversands Drive neighbor Robert Mulazzi.
Petrin and Mullazi are among 95 property owners in the Pine Point, Higgins Beach and Prout's Neck areas who have or will appeal revaluations conducted last August on what Town Manager Tom Hall said were at least 800 properties.
If the appeals process doesn't provide the relief they want, Petrin said he and other property owners are prepared to go to court.
The five-member Board of Assessment Review will meet at 7 p.m. Aug. 19 to consider appeals on 44 properties in the Pine Point and Higgins Beach areas. Additional hearings will be held in October and November.
"The first set of hearings will be quite instructive," Hall said. "The takeaway is taxpayers are frustrated and showing it in the only ways they have available to them.”
Petrin and Mullazi each had 25 percent increases in land valuations. They claim former full-time assessor Paul Lesperance's methods were inherently discriminatory, purposefully overlooked homes already overvalued to avoid a loss of property tax revenue, lacked the state-required sales ratio analysis until one was made after the fact, and used outdated or irrelevant sales comparisons to arrive at new valuations.
"Basically, from what we perceived, not all like areas were treated the same," Mullazi said. “The whole crux of our thing was discrimination.”
Appeals to Lesperance were denied. By February, Mullazi said, the research he and Petrin did of town data brought to light the inconsistencies and problems they asked the state to review, including Lesperance alleged failure to provide a sales ratio analysis, despite repeated email requests to him, Hall and Town Clerk Tody Justice.
Lesperance retired in April. He was replaced by William Healey, but is being retained on a per-diem basis through the appeal process.
Petrin's meeting notes indicate state officials may have found Lesperance's approach at best unorthodox. Rogers last week declined to discuss the audit review.
On Thursday, Hall said he hopes to receive a report of about 70 pages, well beyond the size of the annual report the town receives from the department about its audit practices.
"The ultimate arbiter is Maine Revenue Service," Hall said. "This is what they do on an annual basis. We have no choice to put our faith and stock in what they say."
Hall said at least 400 of the properties in the revaluation had their values reduced. The town property tax rate increased from $13.03 per $1,000 of assessed value in fiscal year 2012 to $13.80 in fiscal year 2013, as the combined education and municipal budgets required a tax commitment increase of $3.5 million, to $50.1 million.
The anticipated tax rate for the current fiscal year is $14.80.
Petrin said his analysis shows 42 percent of town properties observed over the last four years do not fall within the state-required guideline of conforming within 90 to 110 percent of market value, so any Department of Revenue Services conclusion that the town overall is within state guidelines would not be valid.
"A key point is the revaluation grossly left off the other sections of town that were already overvalued," Petrin said.
While saying the revaluation avoided over-valued properties throughout town, Petrin said properties in Higgins Beach, Prout's Neck and Pine Point were also omitted because they were already valued at more than 110 percent of market value.
Hall said the revaluation was conducted because there was finally enough sales data, after years of market inactivity, to give Lesperance the opportunity to reassess some land values.
"Specifically, the ones that increased were concentrated on the waterfront areas because that is what the sales directed us to," Hall said.
A valuation is made each year as the determining factor in the property tax rate and is usually completed in early August.
A group called Concerned Taxpayers of Scarborough has also expanded the fight by alerting property owners of possible over-valuation by the town and urging them to contact councilors to take "corrective action."
Hall said he received one of the letters because the home he bought in 2008 was valued higher than its purchase price. He called the approach simplistic.
"It does not do justice to complications and factors," Hall said.