Special Town Meeting

Brooks elects Lord as selectman; approves increased legal fees

By Fran Gonzalez | Jul 12, 2019
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Selectman Darren Mehuren, seated, center, fields questions as moderator Tom Simmons, standing, facilitates proceedings at the Brooks special town meeting July 10. Also pictured are Selectman Mike Switzer, right, and ballot clerks Susan Gnatek, far left, and Maudine Cunningham.

Brooks — Over a hundred residents packed the Varney building on Tuesday for a special town meeting to elect a successor to Selectman Arthur Butler, who died recently, and to decide whether to increase the town's legal fees account by $15,000, primarily because of a lawsuit filed by Peace Ridge Sanctuary over its tax status.

Selectman Mike Switzer opened the meeting by having a moment of silence in honor of Butler and the services he provided for the town over the years, and to "remember the good times and the bad times."

Butler, who was born in Knox in 1943, was 76 when he died June 20. Besides his responsibilities as selectman, he served as EMA director, 911 addressing officer, and sexton for town cemeteries. Butler also served 35 years as an EMT with Brooks Ambulance.

Three nominees were named to succeed Butler — Linda Lord, Brad Putnam and Seth Violet. Each candidate spoke briefly.

A lifelong resident of Brooks, Lord said she loves the town. She favors making meetings open and said, "Selectmen don't run the towns, you all do."

Putnam said he was not a big speaker and also "not a social butterfly."

"I just want to jump in and help the town best I can," he said. "I'm not here to change stuff."

Lastly, Violet said he was fiscally and socially conservative, and that his philosophy on life is "What is the best I can do? And that is what I can bring to this town."

Of the 107 votes cast, Violet received 13, Putnam 36 and Lord was declared the winner with 58 votes.

"I am terribly glad it's over," she said. "Now we can go to work."

The second half of the meeting was devoted to seeing if residents would approve increasing the legal fees account by $15,000. According to the moderator, $10,000 was approved in March, and $6,000 has been spent to date.

"Are we being sued by somebody?" one resident asked.

Selectman Darren Mehuren confirmed the town is being sued by Peace Ridge Sanctuary, an organization that cares for rescued animals on a 900-acre farm.

Daniella Tessier, executive director of Peace Ridge Sanctuary, claims her organization is a nonprofit and should not have to pay property taxes. Selectmen think otherwise.

In lieu of taxes, Mehuren said, Peace Ridge offered the town $2,500. Its annual tax bill is "somewhere around $15,000," he said.

One resident asked if there are any other nonprofit organizations in town that are exempt from paying taxes.

Town Clerk Jane McLaughlin said Camp Fair Haven is one example she could immediately recall, adding, "but they pay taxes on the housing. The other difference is their property is basically open for hunting, fishing, hiking; this property is not."

Someone asked how much Peace Ridge currently owes the town in taxes. 

McLaughlin said, "They haven't paid 2017 which is around $15,000-ish, and they haven't paid 2018, so we are in the ballpark of $30,000."

Another resident wondered, because Peace Ridge now has two town liens against it, if the next lien might force the town to foreclose on the property.

"Well, that seems to be the question that nobody really knows the answer to," McLaughlin said. "I don't think you can be foreclosed as long as we are in litigation."

Ray Quimby, a certified Maine assessor and also a town resident, said not all nonprofits are exempt from paying taxes.

According to Maine law, Quimby said, you have to fall under one of two categories to be exempt from property taxes — by being either a charitable or benevolent organization or a literary and scientific organization.

"Peace Ridge has not proven to be either one of them," Quimby said.

One resident said she read in a previously published article that Peace Ridge receives donations in the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

"It's not like they only get $10,000 or $15,000," she said, "And they don't think they have to pay — offering only $2,500. I think that is silly."

According to the online IRS 990 form, for the year 2015, Peace Ridge reported receiving $35,000 in government grants and $681,000 in contributions, while expenses were reported as $155,000.

At least one resident spoke favorably about the work being done by Peace Ridge.

"I know that they do some good things out there," Judy Brossmer said.

"It would be good to come to a resolution that is good for everybody," she said. "We don't want them to go to foreclosure, what is that going to buy the town? On the other hand, we do need some help, as far as what they can pay."

One resident asked if the town did not approve the additional legal funding and lost the lawsuit, "would everybody's taxes increase to make up for the deficit?"

"Yes," Mehuren said.

Someone asked if selectmen ever sat down and tried to "hash things out before all this legal stuff started happening."

Mehuren responded, "Not really."

"They filed the suit and we contacted our lawyers," he said. "There was a discovery period, where our lawyers got some answers. We went to mediation and there was no resolving it. She is absolutely, positively not going ... to pay taxes."

Switzer said the conflict is not about whether Peace Ridge is a benevolent and charitable organization — "that's not what is in question."

Peace Ridge Sanctuary is claiming they are an animal sanctuary, therefore entitled to pay no taxes, Switzer said.

"What it comes down to is interpretation of the law and how the judge interprets their ability to actually be an animal sanctuary," he said.

Mehuren said Tessier also claims part of the land is a wildlife preserve.

"You have to be able to be open to the public, all access," he said of a preserve.

One resident disagreed and said with a conservation easement alone, it does not necessarily grant public access, but does offer significant tax breaks. If coupled with the Open Space program, which also reduces property tax, public access is permitted, "but they haven't done that."

The meeting came to a close with a majority of townspeople voting to approve the added buffer funds for anticipated legal expenses.

When reached by phone the following day, Tessier said she was unaware of the special town meeting on Tuesday. She said her main issue with the town is that she was not given a formal legal opportunity to present her case. Then, following the denial of tax-exempt status, she did not receive information on the appeal process, which she said is required by law.

The initial meeting with selectmen, Tessier said, was demoralizing and she felt discriminated against as a woman.

"All I was given was a hard time — a lot of side talk," she said. "They aired their grievances about Peace Ridge, and brought their personal judgment into the formal application process.

"I left the meeting very upset," Tessier said. "It was very demeaning."

When asked about donations to Peace Ridge, Tessier said most are earmarked for specific efforts.

"We don't run much of a surplus at all," she said, adding that it cost over $400,000 to operate just the animal rescue side of things. "There are a lot of costs to run an organization of this size."

Tessier said for a time, she did open the property up for public access and ended up finding loose dogs, which scared the sanctuary animals, and debris. She added, "We don't want guns on the property and that's not a radical idea. I don't want anyone to get shot or hurt in a leg-hold trap."

Peace Ridge has spent a lot of money in Brooks, she said. The sanctuary purchases its grain, hay, gas, diesel, cleaning supplies and building materials in town with earmarked funds.

She still is open to compromise, she said, "but it has to be compromise where they review the application and appeal according to the law and personal judgment does not play a role in our property tax exemption.

"I'm not a bad guy, but I am a stickler for process," she said. "I want my why's answered."

Lawyers will present their findings to a judge who will decide whether a trial is warranted. No date for the hearing has been set.

 

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