GARDINER — At-large City Councilor Penny Sergent said Thursday she will not resign from the Gardiner City Council after other councilors on Wednesday called on her to do so over unpaid property and sewer taxes.

“I am being poor-shamed,” Sergent, 47, said Thursday.

Penny Sergent

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, elected officials were asked to review and discuss resolving the city’s current list of 16 tax acquired properties. Taxes owed on those properties range from $1,116 to $46,639.

Several properties have been put up for sale, but no bids have been received. One belonged to a person who has died and has no apparent heirs. One property has a lien from the Internal Revenue Service.

Also on the list is Sergent’s property, on which is owed $12,382.32. While the city’s memo indicates unpaid real estate taxes dating back to 2014 and unpaid sewer taxes dating back to 2013, Sergent said Thursday she hasn’t lived in her house that long.

In fact, the deed on file at the Kennebec County Registry of Deeds shows that she bought the property in 2016. Before that, she and her family lived in Winthrop.

A deed search on the property shows that the city filed a lien on the property in June 2017 for unpaid 2016 taxes of its prior owners, Peter and Carianne Sawyer.

On Thursday, City Manager Christine Landes said the dates in the memo were typos, but that Sergent owes $10,256.46 in real estate taxes and $2,125.86 in sewer taxes.

The revelation of Sergent’s unpaid taxes prompted District 2 City Councilor Amy Rees to call on Sergent to resign; several other councilors supported that call.

Sergent did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. On Thursday, she challenged the city’s memo indicating that she had not filed any paperwork. She said she has done some paperwork, and every time she tried to file more, she was told she had to go before the City Council. She said she has never met with the council.

The city’s memo indicates she met with the City Council to buy back her property in 2019, agreeing to make payments every month.

She said she has promised to start paying the sewer taxes.

“This is just an attempt to get me off the board, but it’s not going to work,” Sergent said. “Unless the people themselves, and not just the people on the board, tell me to go, I’m staying.”

Sergent said she is unpopular with the other members of the city council due to her advocacy on a number of issues, including the state of the sidewalks and her opposition to the barking dog ordinance.

Sergent said she thinks some councilors don’t like poor people, specifically naming Rees and a discussion during the City Council’s goal-setting session. Sergent claims Rees said she didn’t want those people in her backyard during that session.

But Rees said that’s not true; she raised the issues of food insecurity and affordable housing in Gardiner at that meeting.

As a single parent of two pre-school children 30 years ago earning $19,000 a year, Rees said she has gone hungry herself.

“I have worked very, very hard to get where I am today and to become successful, and for someone to say I don’t like poor people is very insulting to me,” she said.

Rees said Sergent has made good points at council meetings and has been very pleasant.

“(The) issue I do have is that I don’t think she was honest with voters when she ran,” Rees said. “It has nothing to do with her financial situation. People who are rich and get out of paying taxes are dishonorable.”

Mayor Patricia Hart said Thursday that dealing with tax acquired properties can be difficult.

“I would say as a councilor and mayor, when these homes are occupied, it’s the most difficult thing to do to look across the table at your neighbors and have these difficult conversations,” Hart said.

Those conversations take place in executive session and are not open to the public.

In a memo provided to the City Council for Wednesday’s meeting, Gardiner tax collector Kathleen Cutler listed the steps she follows with city property owners struggling to pay their property taxes, including letting them know about the homestead exemption, which shelters a portion of the home’s value from property taxes, and informing them about food pantries and heat assistance programs they can use to free up money to pay their taxes.

In the event of a foreclosure, the city sends a certified letter notifying the property owners of the foreclosure and that they have five days to respond. They are able to meet with the City Council to work out a buy back plan, but they are also informed that the City Council is not obligated to sell back the property.

“At some point,” Hart said Thursday, “we have to hold ourselves accountable to our obligations. If people don’t pay their taxes, the city forecloses and the city has the ability to sell the property to pay those back taxes.

“It’s a horrible situation,” she added. “It’s hard to see people suffering like that.”

While City Council members have called on Sergent to resign, they have no ability to compel her to leave the council.

The Gardiner city charter addresses one circumstance for removal: “Any member of the City Council who shall be convicted of a crime while in office, may after due notice and hearing before the City Council, be removed from office.”

Sergent said right after she bought the house in 2016, her husband suffered a stroke and his health declined, resulting in a number of surgeries and the loss of his foot.

“Things really did get away from me, but no one wanted to help me,” she said. “I had hard times. I tried to work with people, and I kept getting the runaround.”

Sergent said she doesn’t know what she wants to happen next.

“I don’t know what the path forward is, but the path forward has to be a fair one,” she said.

Sergent was elected in November 2020. At that time, the City Council’s three at-large seats were up for election. Incumbents Maryann White and Timothy Cusick ran for reelection, and Sergent, Kirsten Gilg and Scott Williams also ran.

At that time, the city had already foreclosed on Sergent’s property.

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