Hancock County, towns skirmish over veterans’ funds

Posted Nov. 06, 2013, at 4:28 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — An attempt by Hancock County to give veterans or their widows a rebate on their property taxes has led to a disagreement between county and municipal officials over the best way to do it.

Last month, county officials sent out checks to all 37 municipalities along with a letter that indicated the county wanted to use money it gets from a commercial wind farm project to help veterans and their widows pay their property taxes. “It is our distinct pleasure to help those who have sacrificed so much,” the letter reads.

The money, nearly $98,000, is from a community benefit account set up by First Wind as part of an agreement between the company and the county over First Wind’s Bull Hill wind farm in Township 16. County officials distributed the remainder of this year’s inaugural $200,000 community benefits payment among seven nonprofit projects in the county.

Not all municipal officials, however, are happy about having the task of distributing the money to veterans dumped in their laps. Stu Marckoon, administrative assistant to the selectmen in Lamoine, said Wednesday that some local veterans already have paid their property taxes and some have not. If the county wanted to contact each veteran individually and to send money directly to him or her “that would be great,” he added.

“There’s probably two or three days worth of work here,” Marckoon said, referring to the time it would take to sort through the local property tax payments and to determine whether each check should go to the town or to the veteran. “[County officials] never asked us.”

The $97,963 county officials set aside to pay down property taxes for veterans will be divided evenly among the 2,065 veterans in Hancock County who filed veterans’ exemptions on their income taxes, according to Millard Billings, the county’s unorganized territory supervisor. The amount of money each town received is based on the number of veterans in each town who filed for the exemption, he said. The amount of money that would be used to offset each veteran’s property tax bill comes to approximately $50.

Durlin Lunt, town manager of Mount Desert, said Wednesday that selectmen there voted Monday to send the money back to the county so the county can distribute the funds directly to the town’s 360 or so veterans. He said the town’s attorney told selectmen that for the town to accept the money, voters would have to approve it at their annual town meeting, which won’t be held until next May.

“It seems unfair to make the veterans wait that long,” Lunt said. Having the county send it directly to veterans, he added, was the “cleanest way” and prevents the town from having “to deal with the administrative hassle.”

Some towns, Franklin and Trenton among them, have handled the county checks as the county intended — not as gifts to the towns but as third-party tax payments, which officials say is a fairly common occurrence. Some municipal officials, however, said the county’s intent was not clear in the letters that were sent out.

Percy “Joe” Brown, chairman of the county commission, said Wednesday that the county never meant to create a burden for the towns. The goal was to send out the money before towns sent out their 2013 tax bills, he said, but it took longer than expected for the county to get information it needed before it sent out the checks.

Brown said the town of Brooklin accepted the county’s $1,800 check and sent out letters informing 36 veterans living there that, if they already had paid their 2013 taxes, their shares would go toward their 2014 tax bills.

“We decided to do this last spring,” Brown said. “We’re not giving any money to the towns. We’re giving it to the veterans. They’ve done so much.”

He said the county will send money directly to veterans in towns that don’t want to process the funds. Those veterans then can choose how they want to spend it.

“It’s money in their pocket that way,” Brown said. “They might like it better.”

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