Newspapers, Maine Mall owner appeal South Portland tax bills

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Two of the city’s 10 largest taxpayers are appealing their 2009 tax bills.

One of those taxpayers is no stranger to the appeals process: General Growth Properties, the Chicago-based company that owns the Maine Mall, is appealing its bill after losing a similar appeal of 2006 taxes.

The other taxpayer is MaineToday Media, the company formed by newspaper publisher Richard Connor that last year bought The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

GGP is the city’s largest taxpayer. Its holdings were valued at $253.6 million in 2009, resulting in a $3.7 million tax bill from the city.

MTM is the city’s seventh largest taxpayer. Its $43.5 million in holdings resulted in a $640,000 tax bill in 2009.

While GGP’s appeal does not specify an abatement request, MTM’s appeal indicates the company is looking to shed to more than $24 million from the valuation of its personal property and $9 million at its printing plant on Gannett Drive.

The move would result in a tax decrease of $485,000.

City Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer said MTM’s equipment is valued at $27 million, but MTM believes the equipment is worth only $3 million. She hopes to work with the company to determine a fair value, without having to go to court.

“We need to sit down with the company and see where we go from here,” Sawyer said. “As you can tell, we’re quite far apart.”

Sawyer said the city is hoping to having an independent expert evaluate the printing equipment.

The value is likely to center around a greater philosophical debate about the future of newspapers, Sawyer said, especially at a time when traditional daily papers like those published by MTM are losing circulation as readers seek news online.

“The big question is what is the newspaper worth today,” Sawyer said.”You also have to look down the road.”

That question could be informed by what MTM paid the Blethen family for the newspapers, but the details of that transaction are confidential. Even the assessor is not privy to that information.

“They weren’t willing to share the purchase and sale agreement with me,” Sawyer said.

While MTM is expected to downplay the value of its print products, it will be unable to avoid the fact the company now prints all of its daily newspapers at the South Portland facility.

According to a Dec. 15, 2009, Kennebec Journal story, the South Portland press is “relatively modern and has untapped capacity.” The story said the consolidated press prints more than 121,000 newspapers for the Sunday editions of all three dailies, while the combined daily circulation was just under 90,000 copies.

Connor, MTM’s president and chief executive officer, said in an Aug. 2, 2009, editorial announcing the consolidation that it was an effort “to better leverage our strengths and assets.”

“Printing consolidation is the wave of the future in newspaper publishing, and we are riding the crest of the wave,” Connor wrote. “Because our South Portland presses are newer and faster, shifting production there will enhance our products by providing later deadlines for more timely news and more full-color pages on which to print that news.”

Connor continued by saying the printing presses originally cost $40 million to build and install in 1990. “In the lifespan of a printing press,” he said, “ours is young.”

David Silk, the attorney handling MTM’s appeal, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday or Thursday. Connor could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Maine Mall

GGP’s tax appeal, meanwhile, is complicated by the fact the company has not responded to the assessor’s requests for more information.

Sawyer said the company has not presented an alternative assessment and has not indicated the amount it believes its South Portland holdings, which include the Maine Mall and several outlying parcels, are over-valued.

In December, the State Board of Property Tax Review ruled against a similar appeal from GGP, which is still attempting to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. GGP argued its properties were only worth $190 million and sought the return of $990,000 in tax revenue, plus interest.

Sawyer said GGP chose not to appeal that ruling to the Cumberland County Superior Court.

Neither David Swinkle nor Mike Majury of GGP’s tax department could be reached for comment.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

Sidebar Elements

The top 10

South Portland’s largest taxpayers and their 2009 tax bills:

1 – General Growth Properties: $3.7 million.

2 – National Semiconductor: $3.1 million.

3 – Fairchild Semiconductor: $1.1 million.

4 – Hannaford Bros.: $869,000.

5 – Home Properties: $833,000.

6 – Portland Pipeline: $697,000.

7 – Portland Newspapers (MaineToday Media): $640,000.

8 – Central Maine Power: $449,000.

9 – Anthem: $438,000.

10 – Asgrec Two (Macy’s): $370,000.