FARMINGTON – Roland Wilcox sat in an armchair inside the small apartment he shares with his wife, Joyce, trying to figure out how his life went so far off the course they had expected it to take.
Now embroiled in a lawsuit against the town of Phillips, Wilcox says he doesn’t much care about the house the town sold without his knowledge to pay back taxes, or about the 3 acres of land he lost, or even about the loss of the community he served as deputy sheriff for nearly a quarter century before he got sick.
But he does care, deeply, about the nearly $18,000 profit he believes Phillips made on the sale of his property.
Even if the town finds a way to give it back to him, the 67-year-old Wilcox says he will not see a penny of it. He and Joyce owe too much money to the bank and other lenders from debts they incurred in the late 1990s when Roland was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“My wife tried to keep up” with the medical bills, mortgage payments, and property taxes after the diagnosis, Wilcox said Monday, “but we fell behind.”
Eighteen months after recording an approximately $3,000 tax lien against the property, the town of Phillips took over ownership. But, according to town attorney Frank Underkuffler, selectmen recognized the dire straits the Wilcoxes were in at the time and planned to help the family earn back their home and land with a land-installment contract, by which Wilcox would agree to pay $85 each month to the town toward his back taxes.
Once he had paid off his debt, the property would revert back to the Wilcoxes, Underkuffler said.
Wilcox only made one payment, and soon after, received notice he and Joyce had to vacate the premises. They went to live with their son, and later moved into low-income housing in Farmington. In November 2004, Wilcox said, his daughter notified him the house, valued at $50,000, had been sold to Brett Rollins for $22,000. After expenses and the back taxes were taken out, the town put $17,738 into its surplus account.
Wilcox says he was never notified the sale was taking place, although he claims town policy required he be told in advance. When he called the town office to ask why he hadn’t been informed, he says he was told the clerk had forgotten to call him.
Wilcox believes the surplus is rightly his, and this winter “more than 40” townspeople signed a petition agreeing with him and asking selectmen to hold a special town meeting where residents could vote to refund the money.
Before scheduling the meeting, selectmen checked with Maine Municipal Association lawyers, who informed them it is illegal to use town money for private purposes.
In an almost Kafkaesque turn of events, Underkuffler explained, once selectmen put the money into surplus, it became public property, and even if every single resident in Phillips votes to turn the money over to Wilcox, the refund will remain illegal.
Unless a judge orders otherwise, that is.
Wilcox’s lawyer, Ron Cullenberg, explained everyone involved agrees if a judge rules the money rightfully belongs to Wilcox the town can give it back.
The surplus, “after all, wasn’t tax money,” Cullenberg said. “If the town had raised this money” through taxation it would be a different story, he said, but “this money is a windfall coming from the misfortune of the Wilcoxes. In America we don’t do that.”
“Mr. Wilcox worked for the town for 20 to 30 years,” Cullenberg added. Phillips doesn’t pay pensions, he said. “It’s like they got done with the horse, put him up for pasture, and forgot about the deputy constable,” he said.
Selectman Eric Kinney said the board “obviously” would “just as soon give (Wilcox) the money,” but needs to do what’s in the best interest of the town. Doing something illegal would not be in the best interest of the town, he added.
“It’s unfortunate that it came to this, let’s put it that way,” Underkuffler said. “I have never seen anything quite like this one – it does illustrate the limitations the towns are under when it comes to spending public monies and public resources.”
For Wilcox, at this point the dispute is more about principles and less about cash.
“I don’t give a damn about the money,” he said. “I’m just upset they took” what wasn’t theirs. He wants to pay back the bank, he said, and clear his name once and for all.
He considered for a moment.
“Let em take it. We ain’t got nothing anyway. I would like for the bank to get their money but I don’t care about Phillips. There are nice people in Phillips – some of them.”