What could be worse than having your house blown to smithereens while you’re sweeping the garage?
How about having to pay property taxes on the rubble.
“I thought for sure they’re not going to ding us for that,” said Amory Houghton, 83, as he surveyed the foundation of his home-that-no-longer-exists at 34 Gables Drive in Yarmouth. Shaking his head with disbelief, he added, “Oh yes they are!”
Early on the morning of June 25, while Houghton was cleaning up after the chipmunks that had gotten into his garage, a gas explosion leveled the duplex condominium next to his. The blast killed Peter Corey, 66, who lived alone in the unit that exploded and was the only casualty.
Before the insulation stopped falling like snow from the clear blue sky, six of the 14 condos in the quiet development had been rendered uninhabitable. Most of the others show scars that have yet to be repaired while the investigators and insurance adjusters go about figuring out what caused the disaster.
Houghton and his wife, Joan, took refuge first with a son, then rented an in-law apartment that unexpectedly was sold out from under them, then moved into the home of friends who are traveling abroad for four months and, when that window closes, will house-sit for other friends who spend the winter in Florida.
“We’re good until the first of May,” said Houghton, who did his darnedest to keep smiling throughout his unplanned transition from content retiree to octogenarian nomad.
Then came the tax bill.
According to the town of Yarmouth, the Houghtons’ two-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot abode was valued at $360,000 as of April 1. That translates into a 2013-14 property tax bill of $7,568, with half due on Nov. 13 and the other half due next May 7.
This for a house that two weeks ago was finally removed — in pieces — and carted off to a demolition-waste facility. Ditto for three other units, the only remnants of which are a few clapboards still wedged high into the tall pines that line the communal backyard.
“It was just an awful explosion,” said Houghton, who retired in 1991 as a senior manager with Guy Gannett Communications, which published the Portland Press Herald. “I have never seen destruction like that in my life.”
Upon receiving the first of his two $3,784 tax bills, Houghton fired off a quick email to the town assessor’s office, figuring he was entitled to at least a reduction on account of, you know, his house that’s no longer there.
He figured wrong.
“The administrative assistant to the assessor sent back a letter,” he said. “It said, âWe’ve checked with Maine Revenue Services and the Maine Constitution and once we set the taxes, there’s no abatement. The next time we look at your property will be when we look at taxes again next April.’ “
“I was really upset,” he said. “I was upset stronger than I’m saying it.”
Off went another email to his local legislators, Sen. Dick Woodbury and Rep. Janice Cooper, Town Council Chairman Steve Woods and Town Manager Nat Tupper. Houghton’s request: Could someone, anyone, explain to him why he should have to pay a full-house’s worth of taxes on what is now a cracked foundation being held together with steel struts and injected epoxy?
“Anyone with human emotion would have the same response,” conceded Woods in an interview. “Their house is blown up — why are we sending them a tax bill?”
I feel a “but” coming on …
“But property tax is something that is controlled and mandated by the state in terms of how it’s collected and what the criteria are,” Woods continued. “It’s still being looked into and I’m not trying to pass along the issue, but as a council we can’t act on anything that contradicts state law.”
Enter the legal services department of the Maine Municipal Association, to which Yarmouth officials turned for advice.
“I do truly sympathize with the people who lost their homes in the explosion,” replied staff attorney Susanne Pilgrim in an email to the town. “However, as unfortunate as this situation is, Maine law is quite clear that the taxable status and value of real property in Maine is fixed as of April 1st each year. As we say in our Assessment Manual, âeven if the … building burns to the ground on April 2, the assessment is still based on the ownership or use and condition on April 1.'”
There are, of course, other ways to look at this financial aftershock for Houghton and his homeless neighbors.
As Woods correctly noted, more than a few municipal services were deployed responding to and dealing with the aftermath of the explosion. Moreover, if Gable Drive’s victims were to get a tax break for their no-longer-homes, what about someone who loses a home to a fire, a falling tree or some other micro-catastrophe?
Good points all. But there’s something about a massive explosion (see: Lac-Megantic, Quebec) that triggers a higher level of sympathy in people. That’s why Rep. Cooper, having reviewed the existing constitutional and statutory law, is now working on an emergency bill for the next legislative session aimed at providing a little wiggle room here.
(Maine law does allow local officials to grant “hardship” abatements for people who can’t pay their property taxes, but the consensus is that it applies to inability to pay — not inability to recognize what’s left of your home.)
“I have in mind a bill that would allow a town, but not require, the discretion to reassess property that’s been destroyed in a major catastrophe, which I define as a half-million dollars total,” Cooper said this week.
Absent such relief, she noted, “It’s not just the money. It’s salt in the wound. The town is sympathetic, but they feel like their hands are tied.”
You might think that, for the Houghtons, this year’s loss at least will be next year’s gain: If the town assesses them only for their cracked foundation next April, their property tax bill for 2014-15 will plummet, right?
Wrong. Based on what the insurance company and the builders are telling him, Houghton’s rebuilt home should be ready for occupancy right around the beginning of April. That will be just in time for a new tax bill the same as (if not more than) the current one — meaning, on paper, it will appear that nothing ever happened.
No wonder he’s ready to explode.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: