Just over two weeks ago, in one of his almost-daily email assaults on the Maine State Housing Authority, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin made a plea on behalf of the beleaguered Maine taxpayer.

“Maine taxpayers also pay federal and local taxes, all of which are used to build MSHA low-income apartments,” he noted. “All of it is our hard-earned money. It doesn’t grow on trees.”

Except, that is, in the treasurer’s own backyard.

Poliquin, already under the Maine attorney general’s microscope because his private business activities appear to run afoul of a constitutional ban on moonlighting by the state treasurer, now has more explaining to do. This time, it’s about how much he pays in local property taxes.

Or, to be more accurate, how little.

The story, broken this week by the website Maine’s Majority, goes like this:

Back in 2004, Poliquin applied for a tax abatement on his oceanfront mansion and surrounding 12 acres on a secluded peninsula in coastal Georgetown. Specifically, he wanted the town to drop the assessed value of his property from $2.8 million to $1.7 million.

The town said no.

Poliquin then appealed to the Sagadahoc County commissioners.

They, too, refused.

Ah, but all was not lost. That same year, Poliquin hired a licensed forester, put together a “management plan” for the 10 wooded acres behind his house and, with the town’s approval, saved himself a bundle by enrolling the property in Maine’s Tree Growth Tax program.

What’s that, you ask?

The Maine Forest Service, which oversees the program, explains it thusly on its website: “To enroll your property in the Maine Tree Growth Tax program, you must have at least ten acres of forest land managed primarily for the production of commercial forest products.”

The website also explains how the program is designed to “broadly support Maine’s woods products industry” by giving woodlot owners a property-tax break in exchange for the stimulus their wood harvesting operations provide the local economy.

Financially, it worked out rather nicely for Poliquin. By putting 10 of his 12 acres in tree growth in 2004, he dropped the overall assessed value of his land from $1,768,600 to $725,500 with the simple stroke of a pen.

For the 2011-12 tax year, that land has a total value of $943,500 – of which the 10 acres in tree growth account for a paltry $4,300.

And how does that translate into actual property taxes?

According to Georgetown’s property records, Poliquin’s tax bill is $6,668 on the two acres directly beneath his humble abode. (Taxes on the house and other structures total just over $13,000).

And the annual tax on the 10 acres of prime oceanfront land just behind the mansion?

That would be $30.53.

You read that right. The owner of what one state report calls “one of the most valuable residential lots in the State of Maine” pays less in taxes on the lion’s share of that land than a struggling family of four might pay for a rare night out at the pizza parlor.

So how, pray tell, is Poliquin’s management of those 10 acres supporting the wood products industry and, by extension, the local economy?

Good question.

For starters, there’s a covenant in his deed that states, “Trees may be thinned only for purposes of view, and the environment shall be completely protected at all times from the excessive cutting of trees.”

Then there’s Poliquin’s own 2004 application for a tax abatement, in which he backed up his request with the assertion that “my lot cannot be used for any commercial purposes.”

Finally, there’s a lengthy report to the Legislature’s Taxation Committee on Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Law by a Maine Forest Service task force.

Conducted in 2009, the analysis was aimed in part at probing “the perception that some land is being classified under the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law that does not meet the statutory requirement or purpose of the law.”

The 32-page report includes nine examples, compiled by the Maine Municipal Association, of what the organization considered “problematic enrollment” in the Tree Growth Tax Law program.
Example No. 3, lo and behold, is Poliquin’s property in Georgetown.

“For several reasons, including difficulty of road access and the restrictions on timber harvesting according to the state’s shoreland zoning regulations, the ability to harvest any timber on this property – even if that was the interest of the landowner – is extremely limited,” the report says.

Yet from those trees, Poliquin has harvested one heck of a cash pile. If his 10 “tree growth” acres were assigned the same $469,600-per-acre value as his two adjacent “home site” acres, that $30.53 tax bill would balloon to somewhere around $33,000 a year.

So, Mr. Treasurer, what gives?

Poliquin, true to form when the spotlight focuses on him, isn’t talking.

But the Legislature is.

Thursday afternoon, the Taxation Committee held a work session on L.D. 1470, a bill submitted by Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

The bill would require the director of the state’s forestry bureau to randomly sample parcels of land enrolled in the Maine Tree Growth program. Currently, it’s up to municipalities to decide which tree growth shelters (if any) they want to double-back on.

Raye’s bill also would allow state inspectors to enter and examine the land “for the purposes of determining compliance with … the Maine Tree Growth Tax law program.”

Sounds like a plan – although you can’t help but wonder why the state wasn’t doing this stuff in the first place.

As for Poliquin, the next time he bangs out a news release lambasting the Maine State Housing Authority for squandering Maine taxpayers’ hard-earned money, he might want to add a clarifying footnote.

Something like:

As stated above, money does in fact not grow on trees.

It just hides behind them.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]