MILLINOCKET, Maine — Lisa Morningstar has until Friday to empty her mother’s arts and crafts gift store, The Loon Shop, or she risks losing its contents.
Public Safety Director Steve Kenyon and Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Malcolm were among the town officials who delivered the sad news to Morningstar at the Penobscot Avenue store on Monday. The shock was evident on her face minutes after they departed.
“This is kind of heart-wrenching for me, because my mother, she is laid up from surgery. I just came here to take care of her,” the 50-year-old Ontario resident said Monday. “I don’t know how I am going to do this all by myself, and she can’t come down here [to the store]. I don’t have anybody who can help. There’s just me.”
The Loon Shop storefront at 102 Penobscot Ave. is among 25 of the latest foreclosed properties town officials have put out to bid as part of their efforts to raise money for the town and reduce Millinocket’s tax-delinquent property list, Town Manager Peggy Daigle said.
The bidding deadline is April 9. Town officials have generated $120,449 in sales of 54 properties as part of efforts to recoup $262,798 in defaulted property taxes, sewer fees and legal expenses since last fall, Daigle said.
Foreclosure notices on 62 properties were beginning to be mailed on Monday. Those notices addressed sewer fees or property taxes owed for the 2011-12 fiscal year, Tax Collector Lorene Cyr said. Millinocket has about 4,500 residents and 2,500 taxable properties, Daigle and Assessor Michael Noble said.
Daigle and Town Councilor Jimmy Busque expressed sympathy for people like Morningstar and the owners of the foreclosed properties, but said that the town’s financial position demands the collection effort.
The town has approximately $1.7 million in its general reserve and should have about double that amount, Daigle said. Town officials feared bankruptcy last summer, at which time the foreclosure-sale efforts began, when its reserve fund dipped to about $800,000. The first sales occurred in October.
Millinocket has a $29.50 property tax rate — up from 26.4 mills the previous year and the highest in the Katahdin region — and has a school department carrying a $512,237 deficit from the 2012-13 fiscal budget. Millinocket’s largest single taxpayer, Cate Street Capital, still owes owes Millinocket in excess of $2.3 million in property taxes.
“It is not the goal of the town to take over properties,” Daigle said, describing most of the buildings as abandoned by their owners or occupied by renters. Town officials are aware of a squatter living in one building, she said.
Some town leaders had quietly pushed for the sale of foreclosed properties for years prior to Daigle’s arrival last year. The razing of foreclosed properties or sale of them to more responsible landowners has eliminated eyesores and made the town more attractive to potential investors, Busque said.
“I like that,” Busque said. “I think we need to be doing more of that.”
Drawing new investors to the town and thereby reversing a faltering economy and population exodus that will leave Millinocket with 2,300 residents in 10 years, according to projections, will be very difficult so long as the mill rate remains so high, Daigle said.
The properties that have been sold so far were foreclosed for at least 28 months. By law, the town assumes ownership of properties that have had liens for 18 months. The town typically takes about 10 months to sell a foreclosed property, Daigle said.
Many buyers are neighboring landowners who will raze the derelict homes and expand their lots for little expense, thereby also adding welcome greenspace to a town that, in its older sections, has houses built on lots a quarter-acre or smaller. Some are also entrepreneurs who see opportunity in Millinocket.
A Bermuda native, Millinocket resident Dennis Smith bought a derelict two-story house at 19 Central St. in late summer 2013. Today the former blighted property is a tea room, antique store and apartment complex for tourists.
“It is just incredible to pull off a six-unit house for $13,000,” Smith said in October. “The structures are sound, and they certainly were worth the investment.”
So it is ironic, perhaps, that the foreclosure effort will push The Loon Shop out of business, adding it to the many empty storefronts along Penobscot Avenue, said Morningstar’s mother, Faye Calhoun. She described her building’s owner, whom Cyr identified as Albert Bilbo, as a good landlord who allowed her to stay in the building rent-free as long as she paid her electrical and telephone bills.
“That’s how much he helped me out,” Calhoun said during a telephone interview. “From what I understand, he has been sending payments to the town and the town has been sending them back.”
Town officials reject Bilbo’s payments because they conform to his payment plan, not the town’s, and are inadequate, Daigle said. Bilbo has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment.
According to town records, Bilbo owes nearly $23,000 on 100-102 Penobscot Ave. for taxes that go back to the year 2006. Some lien foreclosures go back to 1997, Daigle said.
Profits from her shop are meager enough to make rent impossible to pay, Calhoun said. “We don’t have a lot of business,” the 73-year-old woman said.
Her daughter said she finds the situation very unfair to her mother and people like her.
“They are not giving the little people a chance to have their own business. It’s crazy,” Morningstar said.
Yet given the town’s reliance upon the paper industry, the situation has an inevitability, said Morningstar, who graduated from local Stearns High School in the 1980s and left soon after.
“I left because I knew that there would be nothing here,” Morningstar said. “We knew back then that it was going to be like a ghost town — a retirement town, I should say.”