BENTON — A man who had a beef with the town paid thousands of dollars of taxes that should have gone to Benton to neighboring Fairfield for nearly five years.

The Fairfield treasurer recently asked Steve Bard, who co-owns Bard Paving and Construction, to pay his taxes in Benton, but it is unclear whether Benton will seek repayment for the money — an estimated $7,500 or more — that went to Fairfield instead.

State officials said it is unusual, but not unheard of, for a person to pay taxes to the wrong town, either by accident or on purpose.

Bard and Benton went to court in 2003 over a $1,500 fine the town imposed on him for building a home in a restricted shoreland zone without a Planning Board permit. A judge ruled Bard was in violation, but that the town could not assess the fine.

Bard has been paying the registration fees for his construction vehicles to Fairfield ever since, even though he sold his Fairfield property in July 2008.

Bard said in 2004 he would only pay vehicle taxes in Benton again if the town agreed to pay him $5,000 for his legal fees related to the court case. The Morning Sentinel reported at the time that he calculated the excise taxes he paid to be about $4,000 per year.

Bard did not return a message left with his wife, Shelley Bard, who said she couldn’t answer questions about the situation.

When Bard first began paying excise taxes in Fairfield nine years ago, he owned property in Fairfield, said Susan Inman, Fairfield’s treasurer. She said Bard has paid about $1,500 each year to register six construction vehicles even though he sold that property in 2008.

Benton Town Clerk Patrick Turlo the case is a first for him. “This is totally isolated, it never happens.”

Turlo said that he occasionally fields requests from nonresidents who want to register vehicles in Benton because their town office hours aren’t convenient to them.

“We tell them absolutely not,” Turlo said.

Turlo said he didn’t know whether Benton would try to seek the lost tax money from Fairfield.

Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny said that if Benton does take action, it would have to work with Maine Revenue Services to go through the state’s process.

When it comes to excise taxes, which make up an average of 40 percent of the average Maine town’s revenue, many municipalities rely on residents to ensure the money goes to the right place.

The amount of the tax, which is based on the age and value of the vehicle being registered, goes directly to the municipality, which often spends it on road maintenance and repairs.

Inman said Fairfield doesn’t verify that excise tax payers live in the town or have their corporation registered there, because there is virtually no fraud and verification would cost money. People have no incentive to lie, she said, because there is no financial advantage for payers — the tax rate is uniform across the state.

“Sometimes, we take their word for it,” she said. In cases where town officials don’t know the person, “a lot of times, we look at a piece of mail.”

This year, a former Benton selectman, Charles Kent noticed the discrepancy, prompting Inman to write contact Bard in July.

“It has been brought to my attention that although you have been registering vehicles here for several years, your construction business is actually located in Benton,” she wrote.

She asked him to begin paying his excise taxes to Benton. The letter did not ask Bard to respond, and Inman said he typically registers his vehicles in October, so the town won’t know if he’s complied until then.

At the state level, complaints about excise taxes paid to the wrong place come up from time to time, according to David Ledew, director of the property tax division at Maine Revenue Services.

Town office workers usually know the individuals they collect taxes from, which prevents widespread fraud, he said.

“I think most municipalities pretty much know who their residents are and generally they make prudent decisions about where the tax should be paid,” Ledew said.

Excise tax evasion is more typically an issue in towns that border New Hampshire, where excise tax rates are lower. Those who are caught are fined $900.

Ledew said the in-state disputes often arise out of an improper reading of state law. According to the law, individuals must pay excise taxes in the community in which they live, which is sometimes different than the community in which the vehicles are kept.

If the vehicles are owned by a corporation, he said, taxes must be paid to the place where the owner has registered the main office space.

When his office is asked to review a formal complaint, which happens about once a year, Ledew said the resolution can sometimes involve the transfer of improperly paid taxes from one town to the other. He said a review can only cover a three-year period.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]