Island town faces ‘tax revolt’ after bills increase 70 percent

Posted Jan. 13, 2012, at 8:29 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 14, 2012, at 5:35 a.m.

FRENCHBORO, Maine — As with heating fuel, gas prices, insurance costs and other escalating expenses, property tax increases have been a challenge for many people affected by the sagging economy.

But on this offshore island town, located about seven miles south of Mount Desert Island in the Gulf of Maine, a convergence of many economic forces has resulted in a property tax increase that has left some landowners aghast. According to local residents and officials, Frenchboro is seeking to raise approximately 70 percent more in property taxes than it did the previous fiscal year.

As a result, many taxpayers are seeing corresponding increases of 70 percent or more on their tax bills. According to some residents, a few of them have responded by demanding copies of town documents and others have flat-out refused to pay.

“There’s a bit of a tax revolt here,” Arthur Fernald, a former local selectman and the town’s harbormaster, said Friday. He said his taxes are increasing about 70 percent, from $1,154 to $1,941.

Mike Rogers, supervisor of municipal services for Maine Revenue Service, said Friday that the hike in local property taxes has prompted many Frenchboro taxpayers to contact MRS about state laws on how property taxes are collected.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls about Frenchboro,” Rogers said. “There’s a lot of confusion out there.”

Robert Stuart, chairman of the town’s board of selectmen, said Friday that the increases, when reported by percentage, appear higher because the town budget is relatively low. The total amount of money the town appropriated in property taxes during the 2010-2011 fiscal year is $164,520. This year, the town is looking to appropriate around $275,000.

“A $20,000 [addition to] a $160,000 budget is a lot bigger than on a $1.6 million budget,” Stuart said.

Of the increases to the town budget, $20,000 is for needed fire department equipment and training, and $30,000 has been reserved to help pay for a new town wharf, Stuart said. The town also is facing higher heating costs and higher snowplowing costs, and it has less taxable property because of the sale last year of about 500 acres of land on three Frenchboro islands to Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

“It’s no one factor,” Stuart said.

Stuart added that the higher 2011-2012 budget was approved overwhelmingly by the 30 or so voters who attended Frenchboro’s annual town meeting last summer.

The town also faces higher education expenses. According to MDI schools Superintendent Rob Liebow, changes in the state’s education subsidy formula have resulted in Frenchboro receiving about $40,000 less from the state at the same time that the town is sending two students to MDI High School, after having sent none last year. The total cost for school tuition and for boarding those two students on MDI is about $25,000 he said.

Gerd Hasal, who spends winters in Rockport, said Friday that his property taxes are going up from $1,650 to $3,162, an increase of about 92 percent.

He said he has requested copies of documents from the town that would explain how the selectmen, who also serve as assessors, came up with each taxpayer’s bill. He said the town has yet to provide copies of the documents he has asked for.

“I know the numbers are most likely inaccurate,” Hasal said. “The majority of people [on Frenchboro] are upset.”

Mike Colleran, Frenchboro’s town administrator, said Friday that since the tax bills were mailed out last month, town officials have realized they made a mistake by using different assessment formulas for different properties. He said selectmen have voided the bills that were sent out but plan to meet next week to review and approve the amended assessments.

“There will be new tax bills sent out,” Colleran said.

The budget approved at town meeting last summer is expected to remain the same.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story contained an error. Arthur Fernald is a former local selectman and the town’s harbormaster, not Arthur Alley.

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