, Newburyport, MA

November 3, 2012

Official's tax debt under question

Opponent calls selectman's override endorsement hypocritical

By Jennifer Solis Correspondent
Newburyport Daily News

---- — NEWBURY — A leading opponent of a proposed $293,000 property tax override in Newbury is calling into question one of the measure’s biggest proponents — Selectmen Chairman Joe Story, saying he owes the town nearly $10,000 in back property taxes.

Max Boucher — organizer of Austerity Newbury, a campaign to defeat the override question on Tuesday’s ballot — believes voters should be aware of Story’s delinquencies before they head to the polls.

Earlier this week, Boucher presented The Daily News with copies of official tax-title forms filed last December. The forms show that Story owes $9,322 in unpaid taxes on land he owns or shares jointly with other family members.

Boucher questioned the hypocrisy of a town leader failing to pay his own taxes while at the same time championing an effort to pass an override to increase property tax rates in town. If approved, the override would raise taxes $82 a year for the average property owner.

But Story said he is in the process of paying off his debt and contends that the fact he is having some personal financial difficulties does not negate the need for taxpayers to address a structural deficit in the town’s operating budget.

“I owe the money and I am working on paying it off,” said Story, who was direct and forthcoming in his response. “It’s a fact and there is no excuse for it.”

According to the Southern Essex Registry of Deeds, the properties in question and taxes owed are:

2.27 acres at 29 Newbury Neck Road owned by Joseph Story II and Anne W. Story: $2,060.78 in unpaid taxes

.93 acres at 32 Newbury Neck Road owned by Joseph Story II: $3,337 in unpaid taxes

6.25 acres at 240 High Road owned by Joseph Story II, Nancy Story and Peter Story: $3,924 in unpaid taxes

The property owners have also been charged $1,645.19 for interest and incidental expenses related to the title taking.

As of this week, the taxes and fees remained unpaid, according to Town Treasurer Diane Doyle. Doyle has confirmed that the title takings on the three properties were advertised in The Daily News in late November 2011 and the date of the Instrument of Taking was Dec. 15, 2011.

An Instrument of Taking is a legal mechanism by which a town takes title of a property for non-payment of taxes. The tax collector takes such action when taxes remain unpaid for 14 days after a demand letter is issued. Holding the title is a way for the town to secure payment of the outstanding taxes. Once the taxes are paid, the town files an Instrument of Redemption with the Registry of Deeds.

“We have seen unprecedented collections over the past two years and have worked very hard to address delinquent accounts dating back to 1983,” Doyle said.

Boucher said the town could have legally moved to foreclose on Story’s properties in June — six months after the tax-taking occurred. “Why the free pass?” he asked.

But Town Administrator Tracy Blais disputed Boucher’s claims, calling them “inaccurate.”

“All delinquent accounts of the town have followed the same process under Mass General Laws since we began this process,” Blais said.

Blais said the town has implemented an aggressive collection policy, which has yielded results. Demands have been issued, liens have been filed and foreclosure action is currently under way that includes letters from the town’s foreclosure attorneys mailed in July 2012, she said.

“The tax collector’s office has worked tirelessly on this project and it is a time-consuming process that can often take years before a final foreclosure decree is issued by the Land Court,” she said.

Story disagreed with Boucher’s assertion that his support of the tax override is hypocritical. Instead, Story said he believes it only underscores how he personally understands the hardship a tax increase would cause for people who are already struggling.

Story said even though it will be difficult for him to have his own taxes raised, he will vote for the override because it is needed to address a serious deficit in the town’s operating budget. He said in the end, the question is not about one individual, but what is in the overall best interest for the town.

But Boucher accused Story of attempting to defeat the majority of override opponents by attrition and questioned the irony of a town selectman presiding over an aggressive delinquent tax collection campaign when he himself is delinquent.

“Three sky-is-falling override attempts in 18 months, but the town’s senior elected official is on tax holiday?” Boucher said.

Finance Committee Chairman Frank Remley called the issue of tax arrears “old news” and suggested Boucher’s “real motivation is to squelch Newbury’s override request by attacking the elected chairman.” Remley added that Boucher has campaigned against every override for two years and, despite an open invitation, has chosen not to discuss his specific complaints with town officials.

“He has declined, apparently preferring to shoot from cover rather than discuss,” Remley said.

Voters have rejected two previous tax hike attempts to fund town operations. A larger override — for $950,000 — failed by 200 votes last year. Then in May, a $293,000 override was turned down by just 50 votes.

Selectmen have argued that the cuts that resulted from the override failures have created a dangerous gap in public safety services.

Given the low voter turnout for the May election, selectmen agreed to place the override question on the ballot for Tuesday’s state election — which is expected to generate high traffic at the polls — in hopes of giving more taxpayers a chance to weigh in on the question.

At a town meeting earlier this month, voters overwhelmingly approved the proposed tax hike without discussion. But the measure still requires a majority vote at the polls Tuesday for passage.