As the recent home foreclosure and eviction of an elderly Albion couple draws more attention statewide, Gov. Paul LePage says a bill to prohibit municipalities from foreclosing in such cases will likely go before the state Legislature within the next several weeks.

LePage worked on the bill after the town of Albion foreclosed on the home of Richard and Leonette Sukeforth, both 80, and sold the property in a sealed bid auction. The new owner bid just $500 more than a Sukeforth family friend and then evicted the couple last month.

“I just think it was really bad public policy,” LePage said in a phone interview last week. “I suggest the town fathers in Albion should take care of their constituents. Their job is public service, and public servants don’t throw people on the street.”

What started as a local foreclosure dispute has quickly transformed into an issue with implications across Maine with the governor seizing on the matter as a symbol of the need for government to look out for the state’s elderly and impoverished residents. The case is also exposing tension between a town or city’s need to collect taxes and the ability of officials to work with residents before seeking home foreclosure.

At a town hall-style forum Wednesday night attended by 150-plus people at Biddeford Middle School, LePage responded to an audience question about the Albion home foreclosure case involving the Sukeforths. He summarized what his proposed bill would do and advised anyone who lives on a fixed income and owns his home to take out a small home equity loan from a bank in case of foreclosure.

The governor also said he received a letter recently from someone who claimed LePage didn’t know the whole story and that Richard Sukeforth had “been a pain in the butt in town for 20 years.”

“That’s retaliation in my book,” said LePage, who was mayor of Waterville before becoming governor. “I’m sorry, but that’s not who we are as people.”

By all accounts, the foreclosure was done legally, but LePage maintains it was unethical. The rundown house, located at 180 Marden Shore Road on Lovejoy Pond off China Road, is essentially a small camp. A Sukeforth neighbor and the family tried to buy the property back for the couple after the foreclosure, but town officials denied the request.

The Kennebec County town had never foreclosed on properties before three years ago, and the Sukeforth foreclosure was the first in which people were actually living in the house at the time of foreclosure, according to Albion Town Clerk Amanda Dow. That’s a fact LePage even pointed to during the town hall forum.

Dow said the town had to follow foreclosure laws, and Albion has a provision that allows a person to pay their taxes in full six months after automatic foreclosure, but Richard Sukeforth, a National Guard and Marine veteran, did not do that. Dow said the town sent a letter, a selectman went to visit him and explained the process, but he still did not take action.

Family members say they think it is because he is in the early stages of dementia, and had they known he had not paid his taxes, they would have done so. Leonette Sukeforth is frail and suffers from diabetes.

LePage’s bill, which has been drafted and is being fine-tuned before heading to the Legislature, is intended to ensure such foreclosures do not occur.

Since a story about the Sukeforth case was published in the Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal and Maine Sunday Telegram on Jan. 8, LePage said he has learned of a dozen similar situations around the state in which elderly people have been forced from their homes.

“It’s primarily people who own their homes outright,” he said.

His bill would require steps be taken by the municipality before foreclosure such as discussing reverse mortgage, tax abatement or an agreement where, if the homeowner has no mortgage, the municipality applies a lien on the property for taxes owed, lets the people live in the house until they die and then sells it.

FORECLOSURES IN FOCUS

Also at the Biddeford town hall Wednesday night, LePage said that since the Sukeforth case came to his attention, he’s learned of a dozen more couples going through similar circumstances in Maine.

“It’s more than just Albion,” LePage told the audience.

After the national economy tanked in 2008, foreclosures in many Maine towns increased as people found it harder to pay their taxes.

“Our members noticed it right after the national economy nose-dived in 2008-10,” said Eric Conrad, spokesman for Maine Municipal Association.

The municipal association does not keep data about the number of foreclosures that occur, but Conrad said towns struggle with the issue. The economy has improved the last couple of years in some parts of the state, but in rural Maine where the economy still lags, that struggle continues.

“It is something that many of our members, especially in rural parts of the state, grapple with,” he said.

Conrad and others say those who face foreclosure are generally those on lower and fixed incomes.

He said that the economy, paired with the fact that towns and cities are getting only 40 percent of the state revenue sharing funds they previously received, compounds the struggles municipalities face. About two-thirds of property taxes are used for public schools and about a third for city or town government.

Municipal officials try to work with homeowners and sometimes even forgo their taxes. But after three, four or five years pass and the taxes have not been paid, the town or city must foreclose in fairness to the 97 percent of residents who do pay, Conrad said.

“Towns and cities really feel like they have no choice,” Conrad said.

Conrad said he was not speaking specifically about the Albion case, but said in some cases, families step in earlier to help pay property taxes for those who have not paid.

“And sometimes, people have assets that they could use to pay property taxes and they choose not to give them up,” he said, citing a car as an example.

Like Conrad, Waterville City Manager Michael Roy and tax collector Linda Cote say municipalities do not want to take properties for nonpayment of taxes — they do not want to be in the real estate business. Taking a property requires a town or city to maintain it to local ordinance standards or pay to have it torn down if necessary.

Roy said that probably half of the properties the city has taken by foreclosure in recent years have had to be demolished.

“The city does its best to contact the owners or relatives if we can identify them to try to find any possible solutions to getting the outstanding taxes paid,” Roy said.

Waterville is bound to follow foreclosure laws and treat taxpayers fairly and consistently when it comes to ensuring taxes are paid, and municipalities must work within strict timetables, according to Roy. He said communities have some flexibility regarding reselling or returning a property to its owner.

Waterville, for instance, allows a homeowner 30 more days after foreclosure to get the property back.

“We’ve sold properties back to the owners,” he said. “In 2016, the city foreclosed and resold to the former owner. I think it’s a good idea for towns to have that buy-back provision. Not everyone can take advantage of that.”

He said working with an owner takes a lot of work, and not every town or city has someone who can dedicate himself to doing it for a few weeks at a time. Cote, Waterville’s tax collector, has been praised by the City Council more than once for her work with homeowners.

“Last year we foreclosed on an apartment building, and we had some new information come to us that made sense to sell it right back to the previous owner,” Cote said. “But they had to pay all the taxes up in full.”

The homeowner ends up having to pay not only taxes owed, but also a fee because of time the city has put into the case, as well as legal fees, according to Cote.

Last year, Waterville foreclosed on six properties — two of which were vacant land, two apartment buildings and two houses, she said. One of the land lots was on Airport Road and the other was the site of a building the city had condemned and torn down.

One of the apartment buildings went back to the owner, and one was owned by a person who just left the property and moved to Florida and was letting someone live there for free — a squatter.

“Because there were children in school, we elected to let them stay there until school was over,” Cote said.

In 2015, the city foreclosed on four properties and tore down three. The city worked hard with one elderly woman who could not pay her taxes, and she was able to stay in the home, according to Cote.

The town of Winslow in 2015 foreclosed on two parcels of land that had no buildings, according to Town Manager Michael Heavener. He said that in 2016, Winslow did not have any foreclosures. The town has an ordinance allowing the former owner of a foreclosed property to reacquire it within 90 days of the foreclosure date, and he or she must pay all unpaid taxes as well as the coming year taxes, according to Heavener. If someone does not reacquire the property, the town either puts it out to bid or works with a real estate agent to sell it, he said.

LOSING A HOME

Albion selectwoman Beverly Bradstreet and Dow, the town clerk, said the town paid the Sukeforths’ taxes, which were about $800 annually, for two years in 2011 and 2012. They owed about $4,000 to the town when the foreclosure occurred in December 2015.

Both said they did not understand why Richard Sukeforth did not pay his taxes when he knew he was going to lose his home.

“He was in here — he clearly knew,” Dow said Thursday. “He said, ‘Do what you have to do.'”

Bradstreet said the town does not have a policy or ordinance that says a person may not buy back a foreclosed property once the property has been advertised in the newspaper as going to auction.

“We did, however, call Maine Municipal Association, and it was on their advice that we could not take payment for the property once we had advertised the sale,” she said. “At that point they said the only thing they could do was to bid on the property.”

Bradstreet also noted that the town has an article on the annual Town Meeting warrant that reads: “To see if the Town will vote to authorize the Selectmen to allow former owners of foreclosed properties to redeem those properties no later than six months after the lien expiration, upon payment of all outstanding taxes, interest and fees.”

The Sukeforths’ daughter-in-law, Rachel Sukeforth, who lives across the road from where her in-laws lived before being evicted, said the family did not learn about the foreclosure until last summer when they saw an advertisement in the newspaper that the property was to be sold by the town at a sealed bid auction. She said she had asked her father-in-law several times previously if he was paying his taxes and he said he was.

When a Sukeforth neighbor, MaryAnn Sawlan-Neiman, learned of the foreclosure and impending auction, she went to the town and said she would pay whatever was owed, but was told it was too late because the auction had been advertised in the newspaper.

Neiman submitted a sealed bid of $6,000 to buy the property back, but Jason Marks, who lives on Marden Shore Road and whose father owns the property next to the Sukeforths’ former property, submitted a bid for $6,500 and the property became his.

Sawlan-Neiman contacted LePage to ask for help. She and Richard Sukeforth met with LePage Sept. 7 and the governor quickly got involved.

Marks said he told the Sukeforths that they could stay in the house if they paid rent, but they did not pay rent, so he evicted them Dec. 29, 2016.

Marks said Thursday that LePage agreed the foreclosure was done legally and by the book, yet he spoke of fighting “corruption” in comments to the Morning Sentinel. That doesn’t sit well with Marks, who said a deputy legal counsel in LePage’s office called him last year to request a meeting to discuss the foreclosure, but he refused unless he could have a lawyer there too.

Marks said he was uncomfortable doing so unless it could be in his own lawyer’s office because the deputy legal counsel mentioned he was going to look into future legislation and the well-being of Richard Sukeforth.

LePage told the Morning Sentinel that he wanted to meet with Marks alone and not with lawyers to ask if Marks would let the Sukeforths stay in their former house for the rest of their lives.

Marks said Thursday that he felt pressured by LePage when the deputy legal counsel called him.

“You don’t have your lawyer call me to set up a meeting; you have your secretary call,” Marks said, adding that he doesn’t think LePage intended to meet with him alone from the start and indicated he does not trust the governor.

“Just looking at the things he’s done in the past — bullying people — why would I want to meet with him?” Marks said.

Marks added that LePage thought Marks should let the Sukeforths live in their house for the rest of their lives, but LePage himself “didn’t pitch in a nickel of his own money.”

“If he cared, he would have helped,” Marks said. “That’s definitely one way to look at that.”

Leonette Sukeforth was in a doctor-prescribed hospital bed when they were evicted. Rachel Sukeforth and her husband, Rick, drove his parents to the mobile home of his parents’ daughter, Yvette Ingalls, in Holden, where they have been living ever since.

The trailer park prohibits dogs, and Richard Sukeforth misses his dog terribly, he said.

The dog, Pee-wee, an old brown-and-gray Jack Russell Terrier, and black cat, Kitty, are staying with Rick and Rachel Sukeforth, but the family is hoping Richard’s doctor will help him get permission to have the dog at the trailer park in Holden.

“Daddy really talks about his dog — he really wants his dog,” Ingalls said. “Daddy goes to Togus for all his medical needs, and he goes Jan. 30 and he’s going to talk to his doctor. The doctor can make a doctor’s note to say he needs his dog for a comfort dog.”

LOOKING AHEAD

LePage had been working on trying to find assisted living care for the Sukeforths, but their daughter, Ingalls, said that at this point she believes it would be best for them to continue to live with her. They will have been married 58 years in May, she said.

The state pays for a home health aide to come in from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to care for her mother, Leonette, who is weak and becomes dizzy often, Ingalls said. She said she thinks her mother’s spirits are better than they were after she was evicted from her home of 33 years because she is around family in a warm home where she is fed three meals a day.

Ingalls, who works as a cook at a rehabilitation center, said she plans to go to Togus with her father Monday to see the doctor about his health and about getting his dog back. She said her father does not hear well, and it is important for a family member to be there.

“He loves his dog,” she said. “He loves his cat, but the dog is his world. He’s had that dog since it was born.”

Ingalls said her family has received supportive comments from people since the story about her parents’ foreclosure and eviction appeared in the newspapers, but they also have received negative ones, with people saying, “What kind of family lets their parents live that way?”

“It really hurt us as adult children, that people would think that of us,” Ingalls said. “It was nothing we did. Had we known they were not paying their taxes, we would have done something. We paid the bills, bought their groceries.”

Ingalls, the middle child of the Sukeforths’ five children, says she hopes LePage’s bill to protect elderly people from foreclosure is successful. While it is too late for her parents, hopefully others in a similar situation will not endure the same trauma, she said.

“What we’ve come to conclude is that we’re just a stepping stone to open it up so other people don’t go through this,” she said.

Sawlan-Neiman, the neighbor who tried to buy the property back for the Sukeforths, said she prayed for a different outcome — that they would get their home back. She said she has had many sleepless nights since last summer when she learned of the foreclosure. Richard Sukeforth had built and maintained Marden Shore Road for 33 years, she said.

“It should be against the law to take someone’s property, particularly after you’ve bought and paid for it and put so much work into making it yours, not to mention building the road that your home sits on,” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17