AUGUSTA — Questions lingered Thursday over whether State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin improperly used a longstanding conservation law to obtain property-tax breaks.
Such inquiries could soon come from the Georgetown Board of Selectmen.
Board Chairman Geoffrey Birdsall said Thursday that no resident in the small coastal town had complained that Poliquin’s 12.3-acre waterfront property was included in a 2009 Legislature-commissioned study as an example of a potential misuse of the state’s tree growth tax relief program.
However, Birdsall said, that could change, given the media attention generated by the outspoken Republican treasurer.
“I expect the microscope will soon be on our little town,” Birdsall said.
The 2009 study of the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law program was neither reviewed by the Legislature, nor did Georgetown appear to initiate contact with the Maine Forest Service to determine whether Poliquin was following the terms of a 10-year timber management plan.
The 40-year-old program provides landowners with property-tax breaks in exchange for sustainable timber-harvesting practices on their land.
The program has yielded the state treasurer approximately $50,000 in tax breaks since 2004, according to county tax records.
The tree growth program is administered at the state level. Landowners adopt a plan that the Forest Service reviews every 10 years. In the interim, notifying the Forest Service of potential misuse often falls to local tax assessors.
Tax records show that Poliquin has continued to receive the tax breaks in the program, which has raised questions about whether he’s following his timber management plan, or if the town has overlooked his potential misuse of the conservation program.
Poliquin’s deed from the Sagadahoc County Register of Deeds says, “… trees may be thinned only for purposes of view, and the environment shall be completely protected at all times from the excessive cutting of trees.”
The deed raises more questions about why Poliquin’s property was identified with seven problem parcels in the statewide study.
Birdsall said he couldn’t recall any complaints about Poliquin’s property. However, the town played some role in identifying the parcel as a potential violation of the tree growth program.
Geoff Herman, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association, was part of the eight-person task force that the Legislature in 2008 charged with reviewing the tree growth program. The MMA has frequently advocated for better enforcement of the law, the misuse of which, he said, has cost municipalities significant tax revenue.
Herman said the MMA in 2008 notified its member towns about the study and asked them to submit examples of potential tree growth misuse. That’s how Poliquin’s property was identified in the report.
Birdsall, who served as a Georgetown selectman in 2008, said he couldn’t remember whether the board was notified that Poliquin’s property was cited in the report.
The Georgetown Board of Selectmen doubles as the town’s tax assessor. Municipal assessors often notify the Forest Service if tree growth landowners aren’t harvesting timber or doing so in a sustainable manner. However, the Georgetown board also has a private contract with Van Tuinen Tax Assessing Services, which may have identified Poliquin’s property without the board’s knowledge.
William Van Tuinen, who owns the assessing service, did not respond to a call for comment.
Birdsall said the Board of Selectmen likely would address the issue during its Feb. 16 meeting.
Meanwhile, Poliquin’s political opponents pounced Thursday. Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, called on the state treasurer to release his forest management plan.
Landowners’ tree growth management plans are considered proprietary information.
“This is the public’s business,” Jackson said. “If the taxpayers of Maine are going to shoulder Mr. Poliquin’s fair share of taxes for his oceanfront mansion, then we have a right to know whether or not he’s in compliance with the very law that’s giving him this break.”
Herman and the MMA have expressed frustration with the confidentiality of the timber management plans. He said sealing the plans makes it difficult for local assessors to determine whether a landowner is honoring the agreement that often yields significant tax breaks that would otherwise be municipal revenue.
Poliquin, who is under scrutiny for possible constitutional and ethics violations, did not respond to requests for comment.
Poliquin made several attempts to reduce his property tax prior to enrolling in the program.
Poliquin bought the Georgetown property in 2001 for $1.7 million. In 2003, the value of the property climbed to $2.9 million after Poliquin razed existing structures and built a 6,444-square-foot house and other buildings.
In January 2004, Poliquin asked the town to reduce his tax assessment by more than $1.1 million. The abatement was denied, as was Poliquin’s appeal to the Sagadahoc County commissioners.
Later in 2004, Poliquin enrolled in the tree growth program.