PERU — Board of Selectmen Chairman Tim Holland owes $17,000 in back property taxes to the town. He's already facing one recall petition, from resident Warren Oldham.
If that doesn't work in next month's referendum, Oldham plans to circulate another: one that would keep anyone who owes back taxes from being a selectman.
For Holland, it feels personal, and Oldham says it is.
"I don't understand why, if a guy can't run his own goddamn business, why should he be running the town?" Oldham said. Holland's business is rental properties, on which he owes back taxes.
Oldham's petition comes as all five selectmen in town face a recall vote on March 4.
Things began turning contentious for the board last summer after residents approved an ordinance preventing town employees from serving on the board. Selectman Kathy Hussey is also a full-time town secretary. Some residents said she ought to step down. When she didn't, the recall petitions began one by one, some by selectmen looking to remove each other.
A public hearing Monday on the upcoming vote splintered early with shouts, the flashing of a middle finger and dozens of people walking out.
"The approach of this group of people, I'm ashamed of it," said Holland, who skipped the hearing. "If they approached it a little bit different, with cooler heads, instead of shooting from the hip, they could have accomplished a hell of a lot more with everybody on their side. Instead, they're shooting from the hip and they're targeting people.
"Hang on," he said. "It's a cruel, hard world out here and these guys are going to have to learn."
According to tax-lien records at the Oxford County Registry of Deeds, $18,855 in back taxes is owed on properties Holland co-owns in Peru and Rumford. About $1,500 is owed to Rumford.
One lien dating back to June 2010, on property on Auburn Road, went into automatic foreclosure in December, according to Town Clerk Vera Parent.
Parent said Holland is treated like any other taxpayer in town, given the same notices and fees.
"There is no preferential treatment," she said. "Due to the economy, you're seeing more and more people falling on hard times. Each case is different. They fall on hard times and then they make it up."
The town doesn't have a policy for handling properties that, by state law, fall into automatic foreclosure when a lien turns two and a half years old. She and Selectman Laurieann Milligan are drafting that now.
"We will be bringing it to the board in the next few weeks," Parent said. "We're looking at other municipalities' policies."
Last August, when she began hearing rumors of a petition to unseat selectmen who owe back taxes — Holland is the only one, according to the registry — Parent sought advice from the Maine Municipal Association on whether such a step would be legal.
In an email reply from Assistant Director Richard Flewelling in the legal services department at MMA, Flewelling wrote that selectmen wouldn't have to accept the petition: "It should be refused as . . . beyond the powers of an ordinance to accomplish."
Stipulations like that can only be included in a town charter, he said.
Peru doesn't have one. For small towns, it's not required. Residents could, though, petition to create a charter commission.
"If they want to establish a charter commission, that's where you put the teeth in it," Parent said.
Holland said he's aware of the debts and has been making double tax payments for years. Most of the bills are related to rental properties that he has tried to sell.
"The economic situation back in 2006-2007 kind of ruined things," he said. "Within the next year or so, I should be caught up. We won't go into finer details on our illustrious citizens that are causing this turmoil, but that's just one of the bones they can pick with me."
Holland, a lifelong resident like Oldham, has served on the board for four years. He's been chairman for two years.
There is no conflict to owe taxes and be chairman, he said. "The Board of Selectmen have no hand, by law, in collecting taxes. The only thing we do is we set the tax rate. That's it."
The recall vote next month, Holland said, will show the will of the people. Until then, he'll continue his job as chairman.
"My personal history, my personal closet so to speak, is wide open, if they want to use anything that's out there, go for it," he said. "That's not what it's all about."
Oldham attributes much of the current turmoil to Hussey remaining on the board and his belief that Holland has helped her stay there. Oldham's father was a selectmen for 20-plus years.
"You used to sit down and talk," he said. "Now it's, 'My way or the highway; see you later,' and that's got to end."
In the two petitions he's considering after the recall, one would prevent a person from serving on a town board if they owe more than two years in back taxes. The other would prevent anyone in law enforcement from serving on a town board.
Holland is a patrol deputy sergeant with the Oxford County Sheriff's Office.