AUGUSTA — As state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin ramps up his campaign for the U.S. Senate, the state treasurer is attempting to tidy some unfinished business at his waterfront property in Georgetown.
Poliquin this week applied with the Georgetown Board of Selectmen to withdraw his land from the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law program, following claims that he'd misused the abatement law as a tax shelter. Poliquin will attempt to transfer about 10 acres of his property into the state's Open Space program.
If approved by the Georgetown selectmen, Poliquin would still receive a significant property-tax break — about 50 percent of his most recent valuation of $943,000. However, the abatement would be far less than Poliquin has received under the Tree Growth program, which has allowed the treasurer to pay about $30 a year on the 10-acre parcel, a savings of roughly $30,000 every year since he enrolled in the program in 2004.
Moving the property into Open Space would allow Poliquin to avoid stiff penalties associated with a straight withdrawal from Tree Growth.
Board Chairman Geoffrey Birdsall said Wednesday the board was likely to approve Poliquin's transfer application. Birdsall added that the town would not seek to penalize Poliquin or to recoup the taxes he hasn't had to pay over the past eight years.
Questions about whether Poliquin should have been allowed to enroll in Tree Growth followed the discovery that his land contained a deed restriction that largely prohibited him from harvesting timber or engaging in other forest product activities that are mandated in the Tree Growth law.
Poliquin's forest-management plan is confidential. According to the Maine Forest Service, it will remain confidential even if Poliquin withdraws from the program.
The treasurer has refused to release the plan in order to eliminate speculation that he was misusing the law. Georgetown officials have declined to review it, despite the fact that the property was cited as a potential violation during a 2009 legislative study reviewing enforcement problems with the 40-year-old tax law.
Poliquin's silence has emboldened his political opponents, who have attempted to pin an assortment of ethical violations on the outspoken treasurer, a close ally of Gov. Paul LePage.
Poliquin this week sent a letter to the Georgetown Board of Selectmen to make his case to transfer his property to Open Space. In the letter, Poliquin emphasized that the town advised him to enter Tree Growth after it denied his tax abatement request in 2004. He also stressed that the town had never questioned the eligibility of his property and that he had made a "good faith" effort to follow his forest-management plan.
Poliquin said his decision to transfer his property to Open Space was because the controversy had become "an unfair distraction to Georgetown municipal officials, my neighbors and me."
The progressive group Maine's Majority was first to question Poliquin's enrollment in the Tree Growth program. Chris Korzen, the group's director, on Wednesday said Poliquin's explanation for moving the property to Open Space wasn't credible.
"It's unfortunate that Treasurer Poliquin has once again claimed ignorance as justification for his inability to live up to his responsibilities under the law," said Korzen, referencing two other matters in which the treasurer failed to disclose his involvement with Dirigo Holdings LLC, a real estate management company.
Added Korzen, "Poliquin's decision to withdraw from Tree Growth does not change the fact that he has likely been defrauding the taxpayers of Georgetown since 2004. This kind of behavior is becoming par for the course with Poliquin. He can't just blame others for his mistakes."
Poliquin, who has not addressed media inquiries on the Tree Growth matter, did not respond to a call for comment Wednesday.
Poliquin announced last week he was pursuing the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, who will retire at the end of her term. The deadline to submit petition signatures to get on the June primary ballot is Thursday.
Late Wednesday, Poliquin told the Sun Journal he intends to submit the required 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot on Thursday.
A recent poll showed Poliquin was among the best-known candidates in the current Republican field. The survey also showed that respondents had an unfavorable opinion of him.
That response may be attributed to the controversy Poliquin has generated since the Legislature made him treasurer in 2010.
The Maine House of Representatives recently voted to have the Maine Supreme Court determine whether Poliquin could remain treasurer, given that his ownership of Dirigo Holdings LLC appeared to violate a state constitutional provision that prohibits the treasurer from engaging in commerce while in office.
Friday is the deadline to submit legal briefs to the court.
Meanwhile, Birdsall, the Georgetown Board of Selectmen chairman, said that the Poliquin scrutiny was likely "an intent to personally attack" the treasurer. However, Birdsall said, the matter had brought some needed attention to the Tree Growth program and other abatement laws were sheltering "millions" in property valuation.
Birdsall said the town would continue its evaluation of all town properties in Tree Growth. The survey was initiated by the attention brought by the Poliquin controversy.