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LePage takes interest in Scarborough revaluation audit

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LePage takes interest in Scarborough revaluation audit

SCARBOROUGH — Conclusion of a state review of the revaluation of waterfront properties in town has been delivered to Gov. Paul LePage, but not to Town Manager Tom Hall.

Hall on Wednesday said he was told the audit of work by former town Assessor Paul Lesperance would be a briefing topic last Monday in the governor's office.

Peter Steele, a LePage spokesman, on Thursday said the governor was made aware of complaints about the revaluations earlier this year and suggested Maine Revenue Service take a look.

"(Maine Revenue Services) presented a letter about the 2012 Scarborough valuation adjustments to the governor on Monday, just to keep him informed of their conclusion," Steele said in an email. He said the letter would be distributed by mail and email later Thursday.

He also said the release of the review performed by Mike Rogers, Maine Revenue Service supervisor of municipal services, was not held up by the governor, who is now in Florida.

The report, expected by Hall to be a 70-page review to "answer the questions that have been swirling around for these past few weeks," was prepared early this month. It was initially expected to be available around Aug. 5.

Hall would not speculate about why the governor became involved.

At the same time LePage's involvement came to light, appeals of 44 property tax assessments were delayed Monday by what Board of Assessment Review Chairman Alan Peoples called "an act of electronics."

Faulty microphones halted appeals on the Higgins Beach and Pine Point properties after about an hour of testimony by Lesperance. The appeals will be heard anew at 6 p.m. on Sept. 23.

The truncated hearing left many questions unanswered, although Lesperance was able to explain some of his methods and reasons for a 20 percent increase in waterfront land valuations in Higgins Beach and a 25 percent increase in waterfront land valuations in Pine Point in fiscal year 2013.

Lesperance, who retired in April, but is serving as a special deputy assessor on a per-diem basis through the appeal process, said the increases to "water-influenced areas" were made because real estate sales data showed town assessments had not properly kept up with market sales prices after a townwide revaluation in 2005.

"There was an inequity created by the property that was selling," Lesperance said Monday.

Lesperance, who made his presentation with Bernstein Shur tax lawyer Robert Crawford representing the town, cited real estate sales in Pine Point surpassing the $1 million and $2 million marks from 2006 through 2008, while assessments remained constant at least $300,000 under the sale price.

"I went back to 2006 because that is when the trend began," Lesperance said.

He said he increased values on 279 properties, "most of which were 'water-influenced areas,'” while decreasing values on 475 properties. He estimated there are 8,500 properties in town, 6,500 of them residential.

In the Higgins Beach and Pine Point areas, Lesperance said sales data could have allowed larger increases in assessments to narrow the ratio between assessed value and market prices.

He also cited improved scores in a Maine Revenue Service quality rating based on how close the values were as evidence the revaluations were needed and justified.

When the hearing resumes, attorney John Shumadine of Portland-based Murray Plumb & Murray and independent real estate appraiser George Koutalakis will make presentations on behalf of 43 property owners. Shumadine will also be allowed to cross-examine Lesperance.

In an Aug. 5 letter to Peoples, Shumadine said Lesperance's approach violated the Maine Constitution because of his selective approach to revaluating properties and the lack of correlation between assessments and "just" or market values.

"The assessments of properties in Higgins Beach and Pine Point are so varied that it is not possible to see a consistent relationship between assessments and market value," Shumadine wrote.

Shumadine also said it was wrong to use outdated sales data.

"Any correlation between a 2006 sale and current market value would only be coincidental," he wrote.

Shumadine will also present a sales ratio analysis from 2010 through 2012 prepared by Koutalakis. The analysis is not limited to waterfront areas and concludes "the assessments within both Pine Point and Higgins Beach are 'scatter shot.'"

Spurwink Road Alex Timpson and Riversands Drive resident Don Petrin are among 94 residential property owners appealing to the five-member Board of Assessment Review after their initial assessment appeals to Lesperance were rejected in February.

Petrin's appeal is among those to be taken up again next month. Because he lives in the Prout's Neck area, Timpson's appeal will be heard in October or November.

They and Riversands Drive resident Robert Mullazi attended the July 16 meeting with Rogers to discuss the revaluation and Lesperance's methods.

Timpson and Petrin feel the revaluation was carried out in a discriminatory fashion as a way to fund a $60 million increase in townwide property values used for the fiscal year 2013 budget.

The increase from $3.57 billion to $3.63 billion in total value for about 8,500 town properties came as the property tax rate increased from $13.03 per $1,000 of assessed value to $13.80.

"It was cool, calm and collected, but using sales data from 2006, 2007 and 2008 to justify a 2012 spot valuation is ridiculous," Timpson said of Lesperance's testimony.

An independent study of sales data between 2009 and 2012 shows large disparities between market prices and assessed values in 43 percent of sales in town, Timpson said.

Petrin has said he does not expect much from the audit review by Rogers, but he and Timpson said Rogers also questioned Lesperance's use of older sales data during their July 16 meeting.

Rogers has declined to comment on the meeting or his audit report.

Timpson said Wednesday he has twice tried to meet with Hall to show a “widespread tax assessment problems throughout the town,” as opposed to problems with his own assessment.

Hall confirmed this and said he would not meet while appeals are in process.

"I don't want to do anything to prejudice his opportunity to be heard, and I don't have any authority to remedy his situation," Hall said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.