Scarborough property owners still unhappy about tax abatements

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SCARBOROUGH — The Board of Assessment Review on Tuesday decided 52 property owners will receive tax abatements of almost 15 percent, months after a court sent the decision back to the panel.

An attorney for the property owners said his clients aren’t satisfied and will appeal.

The abatement case has plodded along for five years, and it’s likely to continue after a court ruled the town’s property tax assessments unfairly benefited some residents.

Under the program, municipal assessors give tax breaks to homeowners for adjacent vacant lots they also own. The case started with the town’s abutting property program, which is allowed by state revenue officials, but resulted in reductions on assessments for about 110 properties in town.

Reductions in value ranged from a few thousand dollars for inland parcels to a few million for waterfront properties.

Fifty-two residents of Prouts Neck and Higgins Beach went to court in 2014 after the town’s Board of Assessment Review rejected their requests for abatements on their rising tax bills. They contended the program was discriminatory because it gave favorable treatment to only some residents.

The practice is no longer used in Scarborough, and the court decided the town must rebate an amount that is”roughly equal” to the benefit received by participants within the program.

By a unanimous vote of 3-0 Tuesday, board members decided each taxpayer is entitled to an abatement that will be calculated as a percentage of the reduction of the land valuation for the years the litigating property owners sought an abatement.

Following a May 22 meeting, the board decided on 14.7 percent, but the property owners sought 32 percent. Interest payments of 3 percent were agreed to, based on the rate already established by the town for overpayment of taxes.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, William Dale, said after the hearing Tuesday afternoon his clients disagree with the decision and will appeal the action within 30 days.

He said the town ultimately could be responsible for returning $1 million. Last month, the town added $350,000 to an overlay fund to cover potential liability in the case.

In August 2016, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found the town’s practice of randomly undervaluing separate adjacent lots at the request of individual landowners violated the constitutional requirement for equal taxation.

In May 2017, the board decided to award abatements of 8 percent on the total land value, and 7 percent interest, but it was appealed by property owners, and remanded back to the board by the court.

In December, a Superior Court judge ruled on appeal that the original more than $463,000 in abatements that the town divided among the 52 residents didn’t square with the tax breaks granted to homeowners in the abutting property program in fiscal years 2013 through 2016.

The town divided the money among the 52 residents who brought the lawsuit, effectively giving each homeowner an 8 percent reduction in their land assessment over the four years. The average overall abatement was about $8,900 per taxpayer.

In his order, Justice Andrew M. Horton found the town’s formula to reach the abatement amount was “indefensible” because it was tied to the number of plaintiffs in the group.

Horton directed the Board of Assessment Review to recalculate and issue new abatements that will put the 52 residents “in a position roughly equal” to the 19 homeowners who were “favored” by the abutting property program.

While Maine’s high court blasted Scarborough’s practice of randomly undervaluing separate adjacent lots, it upheld the practice of assessing lesser used or unused portions of larger single lots at a lower rate – as long as it reflects fair market value.

 Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka.
 

The Scarborough Tax Assessment Review Board met June 12 with attorneys for the town and local landowners to decide on abatements for 52 property owners who took the town to court in 2014.

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