LISBON — The budget process was a mess from the start.
There were problems with software updates. The town’s computer guy left under bizarre circumstances. Town officials were late getting tax bills out in the first place and then there was an unexpected twist — a major devaluation of property was discovered and it would dramatically affect the amount of taxes people were expected to pay.
The bills went in the mail anyway. Outrage soon followed.
On Friday night, dozens of townspeople clutched those bills in white knuckles at the Town Office. They crowded Town Council chambers and spilled into hallways.
They did not want to hear excuses.
“We got our bills in the mail,” hollered Camille Booker, one of the lucky ones who came early enough to get a chair. “And we got a $500 whack to the head.”
While the tax rate actually decreased this year — from $25.50 to $21.60 — the town brought up its valuation, which lifted the value of some properties and increased those tax bills.
At the front of the room, Town Manager Stephen Eldridge tried to explain. He had hired a consultant to look over the work of the town assessor, he said. Flaws were found in methods used by the assessor.
The crowd wasn’t buying it. Every time Eldridge tried to point a finger of blame, there were dozens of fingers pointing back.
It wasn’t just the 100 or so residents who had come to demand answers. Town councilors lambasted Eldridge, too. When the unexpected devaluation was discovered, they said, Eldridge never informed them. Councilors said they were as surprised as anyone when they got their bills.
“I’m embarrassed to sit here and tell you I didn’t know what was going on,” said Gina Mason, vice chairwoman of the council.
Eldridge tried to defend himself. He gave them the numbers and explained the budgetary process. He was not required, he insisted, to inform each councilor of every new development.
Sighs and moans followed. Some stepped up to a podium to air their complaints, others just shouted from their chairs or from the hallway.
“All of this bullcrap could have been avoided,” said Matt Eaton, who stood with a throng of others in the doorway, “if communication had been proper.”
Roger Cote, a councilor at the center of the controversy in recent days, agreed heartily with that assessment. By keeping the councilors out of the process, he said, Eldridge had eliminated any chance there might have been to make adjustments, to keep tax bills down.
Applause from the crowd. More grumbling and calls for Eldridge to be booted from his position.
“We’ve got to bring in people who are competent,” Cote said, “and get rid of people who are not.”
It was Cote who caused a stir earlier in the week by advising residents not to pay their tax bills. At the meeting Friday, he was unrepentant about that move.
“This is what I had to do,” he said. “I hope something comes out of it to change the direction of this town.”
Others complained that the valuation process was fraudulent. How could the value of his home be raised, one man demanded to know, when no one had visited to examine his house and property?
Residents are being forced to bear the burden of the town’s financial woes, several complained. The town budget was up 3 percent this year. Perhaps it was time to make cuts to keep taxes down.
The agitated residents — and some councilors — had ideas about where those cuts should start.
Right next door to the town office, as it turned out.
“Why don’t we go where the real bloodsuckers are,” Roger roared over the noise of the crowd, “and cut half the police force?”
There was more applause, more rumbling of agreement.
“Why do we need all of these police officers in the first place?” one woman wondered.
Cuts to the Fire Department budget were suggested and one man advised that the library should be closed altogether. Whatever it took to keep taxes down.
As the long meeting wrapped up, there were no solutions to the troubles faced by taxpayers. Nobody threatened to not pay their bill, but many said they had no idea how they would come up with the money.
Councilors suggested that deadlines could be pushed back. Maybe they could do away with interest for people struggling to pay. The whole process, it was generally agreed, needed to be fixed so similar problems wouldn’t return next year.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Council Chairman Michael Bowie, “that we had to learn the lesson this way.”
The next meeting is planned for Tuesday night.