In this economy, it’s so unlikely it sounds like the start of a fairy tale: Western Maine and the happy tax collectors.
After bracing all winter for piles of unpaid bills in the wake of job losses and shrinking investments, tax collectors looking at property tax rolls and new liens say they’ve been surprised to find that the bad news didn’t come. Many homeowners are paying their taxes as well as they always have, if not better.
“I was really a little skeptical at the beginning of the year,” said Betty Griebel in Auburn.
Then, last week, she mailed out 95 fewer liens for back taxes than she mailed in July 2008.
“A $12,000 difference between the two years I say is lucky,” said Eva Leavitt in Turner where collections were off 1/10 of 1 percent. “I had anticipated less revenue.”
Town officials in Farmington, Lovell, Greene, Wilton and Rumford all said property tax collections seem on pace with last year. In Auburn, Griebel sent out 375 property liens for taxes owed this past year, compared to 470 liens last year. That meant $61,000 less owed in outstanding back taxes.
In Lewiston, Paul Labrecque filed 514 liens last week compared to 517 last year. Despite fewer liens, money owed crept up slightly.
Bob Doiron, supervisor of the unorganized territory within the property tax division of Maine Revenue Services, oversees 21,000 properties on 9.8 million acres, land without a local government.
In June he had 642 liens out for the previous year’s taxes compared to 598 for June 2008, a difference Doiron called inconsequential.
His tax-triggered foreclosures were right at average, 14. So were the number of people approved for a one-year abatement because they couldn’t afford to pay, 12 to 15.
“Looking through the winter, I was thinking, ‘Are we going to have 50 (abatements) this year because everyone’s talking about banks foreclosing?'” he said. “I’m tickled, quite honestly.”
Doiron said he realizes times are tough for some people this year, which brings him to one explanation:
“If they’ve got enough money to pay one tax, in my opinion, they’ll pay the property tax first,” he said. “People seem to understand that I can skate on my income tax and run up fees and penalties; with property tax, it’s almost an automatic thing.”
Ignore the bill, lose the house.
“They understand property taxes are probably the most enforceable kind of tax there is,” Doiron said.
Barbara Vining, Wilton’s deputy tax collector, said she’s wondered if people who’ve recently lost a job are using part of their severance packages to pay off tax bills. As of May, 86 percent of taxes had come in on time, the same as last year.
“I just wonder sometimes if it’s really hit yet,” she said.
Another theory: Greenwood Town Manager Kimberly Sparks said 73 percent of homes in her town aren’t owned by residents, “I think that’s part of it. A lot of them are from out of state where possibly the economy isn’t doing so bad.”
Foreclosures are up, Sparks added, “but usually the mortgage company steps up and pays the bill.”
The economy has already influenced some towns’ collection methods.
In Mechanic Falls, to save itself money, tax clerk Shirley Marquis said this year the town skipped its regular April postcards reminding homeowners about May taxes.
In June, she sent out 216 30-day lien notices, about 50 more than last year. Close to that same figure, about 50, told her – sometimes not so nicely – they’d relied on the reminder and forgot.
Next May, for everyone who hasn’t yet paid, the postcards are going back in the mail.
Sabattus Town Manager Gregory Gill said in the coming year selectmen there plan to discuss offering a discount as incentive for residents to pay early. The town’s collection rate is only down from 95 to 94 percent, but getting back property taxes paid off has taken on some urgency while the town’s tightening its own belt.
The cushion to cover gaps like taxes due or a drop in excise taxes coming in dropped from $117,000 in last year’s budget to $350 this year, Gill said.
Notes and phone calls will go out to homeowners with late tax bills in August. “We try everything here,” he said.
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Real estate property taxes: By the numbers

375: Liens filed at the end of this tax year, Auburn
$992,169: Amount that represents
470: Liens filed at the end of last tax year, Auburn
$1,053,239: Amount that represents

514: Liens filed at the end of this tax year, Lewiston
$1,145,146: Amount that represents
517: Liens filed at the end of last tax year, Lewiston
$1,123,024: Amount that represents

168: Liens filed at the end of this tax year, Turner
$172,245: Amount that represents
141: Liens filed at the end of last tax year, Turner
$165,935: Amount that represents

SOURCE: Town and city officials

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