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Scarborough tax appeals continue without decision; secession talk joins the discussion

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Scarborough tax appeals continue without decision; secession talk joins the discussion

SCARBOROUGH — More than a month after appeals  began on 44 property tax assessments from 2012 at Higgins Beach and Pine Point, continued arguments consumed five hours Monday night.

What remained elusive was a decision by the four-member Board of Assessment Review. The hearing was adjourned, and will continue at least two more times, at 7 p.m. Oct. 8 and 6 p.m. Oct. 15.

The Oct. 8 hearing will be limited to an appeal of Nancy Strong's Shipwreck Road property in Higgins Beach. On Oct. 15, 43 assessments will be heard as one appeal, with Portland attorney John Shumadine presenting the appellants' case. He will be joined by independent real estate appraiser George Koutalakis to present countering arguments.

While hearings continue, appellant Don Petrin of River Sands Drive has hinted the appeal effort will spread beyond Town Hall and the courts, to a secession movement in the waterfront neighborhoods hardest hit by the revaluations.

"I’m not leading that effort, however I will, like many, support that effort," Petrin said. "Legal advice was solicited and received as to the steps involved, however I have not seen the required petition as yet."

Petrin was also unimpressed with Monday's proceedings.

"Unfortunately for the board, the town chose to essentially filibuster the hearing by strategically reiterating the same mundane points over and over again," he said.

Oct. 15 will mark the fourth time the board will hear arguments, after the first hearing on Aug. 19 was adjourned because of faulty microphones in the Town Council chambers.

At issue are assessment increases of as much as 25 percent levied by former Tax Assessor Paul Lesperance, who now serves as a special deputy assessor after retiring in April.

A total of 94 appeals initially rejected by Lesperance last February have or will be heard by the board. Assessment appeals on Prout's Neck properties scheduled for  Oct. 15 will be rescheduled for November.

Monday's hearing allowed Lesperance to conclude his remarks on the methods and data used to revalue about 750 properties in 2012.

Shumadine was limited to cross examination totalling about 90 minutes on testimony by Lesperance and current Tax Assessor Bill Healey. He tried to establish sales data used by Lesperance was irrelevant because it included sales preceding the 2008 recession.

Lesperance said market conditions showed consistently increased sales prices on waterfront and "water-influenced" properties since the last overall revaluation in 2005.

Increased sales prices were eclipsing property valuations enough to warrant increased assessments as early as 2011, Lesperance said, despite flat sales prices in the rest of Scarborough.

In the years preceding the recession, annual property valuations in Scarborough increased by as much as $382 million, or about 13 percent. In the last several years, the valuation increases have been between 1 and 2 percent, leading Shumadine to ask Lesperance if it was proper to use sales data from 2006 to justify increased assessments.

“Scarborough did not see a 20 or 30 percent reduction based on sales, it didn't happen in Scarborough," Lesperance replied. "If it had, I would have been decreasing values in 2009.”

Shumadine also questioned the validity of an audit review of the revaluation by Mike Rogers of the Maine Revenue Service, because Rogers included data not used by Lesperance.

The audit review was occasioned by a July 15 meeting between Rogers, auditor Steven Salley, Petrin, his neighbor, Robert Mulazzi, and Spurwink Road resident Al Timpson.

"(The audit review) could not justify the tax assessor’s actions with just the use of sales data through April 1, 2012, in establishing fair market value of properties on that date," Petrin said. "Remember it happened on their watch. Why did they ignore logic and their own rules?"

In revaluing the properties in question, Lesperance did not use sales data recorded after April 1, 2012, his normal procedure when preparing for the annual total valuation of about 8,500 town properties that eventually helps determine the property tax rate.

Without revaluing properties, Lesperance said the town tax rate would have increased by 9 percent instead of 5.5 percent. The total valuation increased from  $3.57 billion to $3.63 billion as the property tax rate increased from $13.03 per $1,000 of assessed value to $13.80.

The audit review, however, added data recorded after April 1, 2012. Lesperance said state reviews typically consider sales from July 1 to June 30 of a given year when evaluating a ratio between sale prices and assessed values and the "quality rating" given to the yearly town valuation report.

Healey, who was appointed tax assessor in May, said the review establishes Lesperance correctly identified trends justifying the increased assessments even though divergent data was used.

"The sales are the sales," he said. "You can't fabricate the information."

Shumadine disagreed, noting 30 percent of the data in tables created by Rogers, which showed town properties in four classifications were at or near 100 percent ratio between sales prices and assessments, was outside the dates Lesperance used in defense of his assessments.

He also questioned the validity of the report, saying Rogers was essentially approving his own work in the audit review.

Healey disagreed.

"Mike's check was not of Mike's work, Mike's check was of Scarborough's work," Healey said. "We answer to the tax assessor of Maine Revenue Services."

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