HOULTON, Maine — A request from the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to waive a payment owed the town has been denied by the Houlton Town Council.
Councilors rejected the request by a vote of 3-2 Monday evening. Councilors John White, Rob Hannigan and Phil Cloney opposed the waiver, while John Fitzpatrick and Dan Peabody voted in favor.
Councilor Sue Tortello, who is employed by the Maliseets, excused herself from the discussion and vote.
“I have been advised by legal counsel that my participation does not pose a conflict of interest and I totally agree with that,” Tortello said. “I feel I can remain non-partial, regardless of my employment. However, I don’t feel that is the opinion in the court of public opinion.”
Tortello then removed herself from the council and did not participate in the discussion.
Town Manager Eugene Conlogue explained he had been in negotiations for the past few months with Tribal Chief Brenda Commander concerning a request to waive a payment in lieu of taxes or PILOT owed the community. The band was initially requesting a waiver of $53,961, but agreed to cut that request in half.
“We came to a negotiated agreement two weeks ago,” Conlogue said. “What we agreed to do is to recommend splitting the 2012 PILOT.”
The town has had an agreement with the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians that allows the tribe to request a waiver of some or all of its annual payment to the town, provided the Maliseets have done improvements that somehow benefit the town.
“The band has undertaken a number of projects (over the years) and while some may disagree with how the projects benefited them, the overall improvements have benefited (the town),” Conlogue said.
In requesting the waiver, the Maliseets must state their reasons. In 2011, a request of $38,380 was waived by the council because of improvements the Maliseets made to the Currier Road and surrounding area.
That same criteria was presented in 2012, councilors said, which did not sit well with at least a couple members of the board.
“My feeling is that if I am going to take $54,000 out of our budget, they (Maliseets) need to somehow do something to my budget to replace that $54,000,” Paul Cleary, the board’s chairman, said.
He suggested asking the tribe to help out with projects that are currently on the active list of those issues the town wants to address, rather than simply doing projects that the town might not need to have done right away.
“It was my understanding that we can only consider things done on the year that we are voting on,” said councilor White. “I have never voted to waive any tax revenue or abatements. Last year, when I voted against this, after the meeting I was called a racist. I took offense to that. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with never, ever voting against any abatements.”
“Every dollar that we take out of revenue is money that comes from somewhere else,” noted councilor Peabody.
One suggestion was to see if the Maliseets could assist with grant money to help pave the Gentle Memorial parking lot, or to resurface the tennis courts or any other projects the town is currently planning to undertake.
“One of my goals is to improve the relationship between the town and the band,” Conlogue said. “We don’t do that just with money. We do it with a cooperative, working relationship. Their culture and history … we have a valuable resource right here in Houlton. So it’s very important to build that relationship.”
Cleary said he didn’t think anyone on the council would disagree with that statement, but when it comes to putting a budget together, the council needed to collect the most revenue possible or risk cutting services.
Payments in lieu of taxes are typically made by nonprofit organizations that are exempt from property taxes to help pay for the services they receive from towns. Houlton has a similar arrangement with the tribe.
“It is very true that the band has purchased land in the town and that land was removed from our active (taxable) property list,” Conlogue said. “That is where the PILOT comes in to replace some of that lost money. It is money we would not normally get, if we did not have an agreement. Because we have this agreement, it is a benefit to the town when we receive any payments.”
All of the land owned by the Maliseets is tax-exempt, Conlogue noted. He felt the agreement presented by Commander for the town to receive $26,980 was a good thing for the community.
Councilor Fitzpatrick asked what services the town provided to the Maliseets.
“All town services are equally available to members of the Band,” Conlogue said.
Houlton provides police, fire, ambulance and recreation services, as well as plowing of certain town-owned roads.
Conlogue said Tuesday that he sent an email to Chief Commander informing her of the Council’s vote the night before.
“At this point, the town council’s vote to deny the waiver request is the town’s official action and I consider it to be a final action unless another offer is made by the band and the council is willing to consider such a new offer,” he said. “My personal observation is that the council majority appeared to be uninterested in any new offer, but I do not want to speak for them or their intentions.”
Part of that perception is that the council felt it was being asked to waive additional PILOT funds for projects that previously received a waiver and that there should not be a “double dip” from two different PILOTs for the same project, Conlogue added.
With the vote, the Maliseets now owe the town the full amount of $53,961 for 2012 taxes. Conlogue said he informed Commander on Tuesday that the amount was due in full by Friday, Feb. 8. If the bill is not paid by then, interest will be charged dating back to Oct. 16, 2012, since that is the date interest began for all outstanding taxes for 2012.
The Maliseets could pursue legal actions against the town, should they wish to push to have the PILOT waiver granted. Attempts to reach Commander for comment Tuesday were not successful.
The next regular meeting of the Houlton Town Council is set for 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 11.