“I can’t tolerate a $10,000 tax bill. No way. You’re going to tax me off my land.”
The words of Whitefield’s largest dairy farmer to selectmen Monday evening cast a shadow on the vision of rural living touted in the town’s comprehensive plan: farms and farmlands, barns, silos, fields of corn and hay, glimpses of cows, and an “effective municipal government mindful of the need for limited property taxation.”
Since the town underwent a universal assessment last year with a subsequent adjustment in 2010, approximately 10 percent of taxpayers have sought abatements on their 2011 tax bills.
Barry Tibbetts, whose property is high on the list of valuations, was among those who got an adjustment; after a talk with the assessors’ agent the assessment on his dairy barn dropped. But compared to the approximately $7500 he paid last year, his taxes are “nowhere near where they should be,” Tibbetts told selectmen Steve McCormick and Frank Ober.
The farmer said if he sold all the hay off one property, taxed at $1200, “I couldn’t generate that kind of money. I can see what’s happening. You’ll be looking at a budget next year worse than this.”
McCormick agreed. “We don’t have a surplus, and what the state is kicking in is a drop in the bucket.”
Particularly upsetting to Tibbetts, who, at age 60, has farmed nearly his entire adult life, as did his father and grandfather before him, was that the board had apparently forgotten to meet with him concerning his eligibility for farmland and open space tax programs, which value land at a lower rate.
Until recently, when the town and assessors’ agent Jim Murphy began upgrading the assessment of buildings and land so that the tax burden could be more equitably shared, Whitefield’s generally low taxes didn’t compel large landowners to seek enrollment in such programs.
According to town records, Tibbetts owns 264 acres. His holdings include the family farmhouse with barns at 163 Townhouse Rd., another house at 61 Townhouse Road where his parents used to live, a barn and 55 acres of hayfield on Cooper Road, and various parcels of land around town that he mows. The total value is $754,479 and he receives 12 tax bills.
A significant problem is that because much of his land is not contiguous, he said, “I get hit by the base lot” assessment, which increases his assigned value and tax bill.
One irony is that Tibbetts has worked many years on the budget committee, often chairing it. “I’ve tried to keep taxes low so we wouldn’t tax the old families off their land,” he said.
When McCormick pointed to zoning as a solution, Tibbetts replied, “You’re going to lose the character of the town of Whitefield real quick.”
Ober asked Tibbetts what he would like the board to do differently. Tibbetts said he had expected to explore his “issues” with someone, and while he understood he could address part of his tax bill through the farmland and open space program, he wasn’t sure he should have to. “I’ve tried to be a good servant, to keep my land open, and maintain the rural character down through this valley.”
While he acknowledged the reduced assessment on his barn, he also said that should he sell that property, the buildings would detract from the price. “They’re useless without the land, and the house is pretty useless unless you want a dairy farm,” he said. Some towns, he added, have found a way to help their large landowning farmers.
McCormick said he thought the board could address the segmented lots.
When pressed again by Ober for an approach that would be fair to everyone else paying taxes, Tibbetts said, “I’m different. I make my living from the soil, from the land. How many people do that?”
The first statutory rules were written for the farmland tax law in 1972-73 and there was a significant rewrite of those laws in the late 1980s. The Legislature “tremendously reduced” the penalties for farmers wanting to get out of the enrollment, Ledew said, basing the penalty on the taxes the town would have levied in the most recent five years, plus interest.
If the property owner has 20 acres of woodland and he enrolls in the farmland program, he doesn’t have to work with and therefore pay a forester, and the combination of the two programs can offer a greater break in taxes – maybe not huge, but helpful, Ledew said.
A Maine Revenue Services bulletin addressing agricultural valuation was provided at a public meeting last winter on the town’s new assessments. It suggests a value of $325 per acre for pastureland (including grazing, hay and corn production). By contrast, Whitefield identifies such land as raw land and now values it at $650/acre.
Ledew said this week that the program lets a farmer with a “satellite” (noncontiguous) parcel escape the base lot value (now $18,500 in Whitefield) that would normally be assigned.
Farmers who view their land, or a chunk of it, as their 401K retirement plan, hoping to subdivide or sell off parcels to supplement their income, can keep that acreage out of the farmland program to avoid the penalty.
“The farmer really should sit down with the board and the assessing agent to see what can be done,” Ledew said.
Concerning the independent streak in rural landowners and their skeptical view of government, Ledew said he has spoken “hundreds of times over the years to foresters and farmers and their number one concern is that the Legislature could change these laws at any time. The Legislature has, but in almost all cases, the changes are designed to make it easier, less burdensome to the landowner.”