AUGUSTA — A bill designed to help elderly Mainers manage their property taxes and avoid foreclosure on their homes got a first public hearing Thursday, with supporters saying it will provide a safety net for older people and opponents contending it would place a burden on municipalities that are not equipped to do what the bill requires.

L.D. 1629 was initiated by Gov. Paul LePage after the town of Albion in 2015 foreclosed on an elderly couple’s house on Lovejoy Pond and sold it for $6,500, and the new owner evicted the couple in 2016 and demolished the home.

The bill, “An Act to Protect the Elderly from Tax Lien Foreclosures,” requires municipalities to follow certain steps to foreclose successfully a tax lien on property belonging to people 65 and older. It requires towns to help homeowners apply for a tax abatement, create a payment plan if necessary, allow a homeowner to pay a tax lien with interest and costs before a tax sale and allow the homeowner to remain in the home until it is sold.

Also, a town would have to use a real estate broker to sell the property instead of putting it out to bid. After a sale, any net proceeds from the sale after adjustment for taxes owed, interest, fees and other costs would be returned to the former homeowner.

LePage learned of Richard and Leonette Sukeforth’s situation in Albion after the foreclosure took place. He tried to help them, but it was too late. The new owner evicted the Sukeforths during a snowstorm Dec. 29, 2016, when Leonette was ill and in a hospital bed in the living room.

After that, LePage discovered more elderly people throughout the state had lost their homes in similar situations.

On Friday, in an interview with the Morning Sentinel, he said that since September, he has learned of 12 more cases; and in many of those instances, the people had lived their whole lives in a community and contributed to children’s education and paid their taxes. As people get older, however, they get tired and forgotten, LePage said, and it’s important that municipalities help them.

“To me, it’s so, so critical that they’re not just a number on a page,” he said.

“This is not an isolated incident,” he said, referring to the Sukeforth eviction, “and it’s just infuriating that the small community bureaucrats just don’t do enough. What I’m saying is, there are times it can’t be free, but we’ve got to help them.”

The Sukeforths, now both 81, went to live in a trailer in Holden with their daughter after the eviction in 2016, and their daughter has since moved out. Richard Sukeforth, a National Guard and Marine veteran, said Friday in a phone interview that his wife is in a rehabilitation center after being hospitalized and he misses her. He also misses home in Albion, where they had lived with their dog, PeeWee, and cat, Kitty.

“People should pay their bills, but if they have a hard time, they should have a little bit of leeway so they can stay in the house,” he said. “But they just take it and it’s gone, and you never see it again.”

L.D. 1629 SUPPORTERS

At the public hearing Thursday in the State House before the Joint Standing Committee on Taxation, Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, the bill’s sponsor, said she is confident the bill would benefit all Mainers as it creates provisions concerning the sale of foreclosed property for all homeowners.

“The creation of a pre-foreclosure process and companion provisions would go a long way towards a fairer and more equitable process for handling very difficult situations involving some of our most vulnerable constituents,” Espling said.

Madeline Malisa, deputy counsel and senior policy adviser to LePage, urged the committee to vote “ought to pass” on the legislation, citing the Albion case, in which the Sukeforths had lived in their home 33 years before being evicted.

“The goal of this bill, as Rep. Espling indicated, is to ensure that elderly homeowners who are unable to pay their property taxes will not lose their homes, lose the equity they have built up over their lifetimes and ultimately, potentially, become homeless,” Malisa said.

Leo Delicata, of Legal Services for the Elderly, Inc., also testified in support of the bill, saying the bill obliges a municipality to advise a homeowner about reverse mortgages and other options. It also requires the town to report to the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Adult Protective Services office in suspected cases of neglect, abuse or exploitation, including self-neglect and cases involving physical or mental problems that contribute to preventing business dealings with a homeowner. The bill, he said, creates concrete ways for homeowners to deal with the financial concern of paying taxes.

“It also encourages municipalities to build mutually beneficial relationships with their older residents,” Delicata said. “The ability to continue aging while remaining in one’s home is what most of us wish. For older adults with modest means, it is a challenging idea. For the poorest among us, it is a frightening worry that may negatively affect our physical and mental health.”

Sen. Dana Dow, R-Lincoln, the taxation committee chairman, questioned whether municipalities can handle all that the bill requires.

“It seems like there’s a lot of steps for a community to go through. It almost needs a flow diagram,” Dow said.

Delicata said the steps are progressive. For instance, if a homeowner receives a tax abatement, he or she might not have to move to the second step of setting up a payment schedule.

“The thing to remember is that these steps really do depend on behavior and choices that people make,” he said.

Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, a committee member, said she is concerned about the elderly but knows “people 65 and older who could buy and sell everything in this room.” She wondered why anyone 65 or older would pay taxes if the bill passes.

Delicata said the process doesn’t start until after a tax lien is filed, and most people do not want to put themselves in the position of fighting foreclosure.

Grant said that in Gardiner, officials bend over backward to help keep people in their homes.

Frank D’Alessandro, of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Inc., said that last year, Pine Tree Legal represented 58 homeowner households in cases involving municipal real estate taxes and, since 2008, has increased dramatically its representation of homeowners in foreclosure cases.

In one case, a homeowner fell $8,000 behind in taxes on his home, worth $60,000, according to D’Alessandro, who said the owner’s sole source of income was $735 a month in Social Security income benefits. Pine Tree tried to work with the town to hire a real estate broker to sell the property, D’Alessandro said, but the town refused to negotiate with the nonprofit organization and the homeowner lost the home and the equity in the home.

“We do see this as a problem, and we view this bill as a basic fairness to homeowners,” he said.

Pine Tree typically gets calls from homeowners in December or January, he said. The agency asks them why they did not file a poverty tax abatement, and typically they give one of two answers: that they were told the town does not do abatements or has never done one.

OPPONENTS CITE BURDEN

Municipal officials who oppose L.D. 1629 told taxation committee members that the bill would place an unnecessary and undue burden on towns and cities.

David Little, tax collector and deputy treasurer for the city of Bangor, said that while the bill would affect people 65 and older, there is no current system or requirement to track the age of homeowners, and a method would have to be developed for gathering and storing that information, which might be confidential. Little said municipalities already are required by law to help people apply for a tax abatement, and the city has helped people with repayment schedules for years.

L.D. 1629, he said, requires that a mediator be hired if a reasonable payment schedule cannot be reached, and half the cost would have to be borne by the taxpayer.

Bangor has 108 properties with at least one matured lien, he said, and the debts incurred range from two to 18 years of unpaid taxes. The amounts due from the top five residential properties range from $20,000 to $47,000, representing six to 11 years of unpaid taxes, but that amounts to only 18 to 43 percent of the assessed value, according to Little. If L.D. 1629 passes, none of the properties could be taken for unpaid taxes if owned by people 65 and older, according to Little, who asked how that would be fair and equitable to Bangor taxpayers.

Suzette Francis, treasurer and tax collector for the town of Lubec, spoke on behalf of the town’s selectmen in opposing the part of the bill that says after the foreclosure process is completed and the right of redemption has expired, any sale of the property by the municipality must proceed in a certain way. Specifically, it says if anyone 65 or older lives in the home and it is his or her sole residence, the town may not take action to sell it to a third party until the value of the municipal lien for nonpayment of taxes established exceeds 50 percent of the municipal assessed value of the property.

Francis said the average assessed value of a home in Lubec is $70,000, the tax rate is $23 per $1,000 worth of valuation and the average property tax is $1,600.

Francis said the tax lien would have to reach $35,000, which would take about 22 years, in order for the town to proceed with tax foreclosure proceedings.

“Approximately 30 percent of Lubec residents, according to the 2010 census, fall into the 65-or-older category,” Francis said. “This is an unrealistic burden to place on the remaining taxpayers of the town.”

Kathleen Cutler, tax collector and deputy treasurer for the city of Gardiner, also opposes the bill. She told committee members that Gardiner already helps residents apply for abatements and works out “buy back” agreements. Furthermore, the city solicitor advised the city to avoid entering into payment agreements after a lien matures and the city forecloses because it puts the city in the position of being a mortgage holder, she said.

“If the resident then defaults on payments, the city would have to take civil action to proceed and foreclose, resulting in added financial burden to the rest of the taxpayers,” Cutler said. “Because of the additional work, financial concerns and caring for all taxpayers, Gardiner makes every effort to avoid foreclosure.”

Cutler said she has increased efforts to reach out to elderly residents about what is available for tax relief.

MOVING FORWARD

A work session on L.D. 1629 was scheduled for next Thursday but was postponed. As of Friday, a new date had not been set.

Typically the work session is scheduled for about a week after the hearing, Espling said, and the committee will discuss the bill in public and perhaps make amendments. The committee could vote ought to pass or not pass, and the bill is later taken up by the Legislature.

In the Sukeforth case, a neighbor tried to buy the property back for the family when she heard it had been foreclosed on, but the town refused. MaryAnn Sawlan-Nieman submitted a sealed bid of $6,000 for the property, but the higher sealed bid was $6,500, so she was outbid.

Sawlan-Nieman said Friday that she would have been at the hearing Thursday, but she is recovering from a recent knee replacement. Sawlan-Nieman, who is caring for the Sukeforth’s dog, PeeWee, because dogs are not allowed in the trailer park where the Sukeforths live, said she hopes LePage’s efforts pay off.

“I pray Governor LePage and the state of Maine passes L.D. 1629 so that, in the future, not one elderly Maine resident will ever have to worry about losing their longtime family home again,” she said. “I can see what this has done to the Sukeforths, emotionally, and physically too. They are lost and heartbroken. Not only did they lose their home, they lost PeeWee, their best friend, and all the security they had in this world.”

LePage, meanwhile, agreed Friday that the bill will present a burden to towns, but to be a good community and a good corporate citizen takes extra work.

“Yes, it can be a burden to be nice,” he said.

In addition to promoting L.D. 1629, LePage is working on other initiatives to help the elderly during his last year in office, including an effort to protect them from unscrupulous contractors who take money from people to do work and then disappear.

He said one particular man scammed three people out of $25,000, promising to cut trees in a backyard and do roof work.

“This particular one goes around and says, ‘I need money up front because I got hurt by people not paying me,’” LePage said, noting that that is a red flag and a person should not hire the man.

LePage also is working on an effort to help elderly people who have had public easements for 60 or 70 years. Municipalities are now walking away from those easements and the elderly must pay for maintenance and plowing.

“The elderly are really getting beat up in this state,” he said. “It’s because they’re poor.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

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