A bill to help elderly Mainers manage their property taxes and avoid foreclosure on their homes is scheduled to make its way through the Legislature in January, but opposition to some of the bill’s provisions has raised the ire of its primary backer, Gov. Paul LePage.

Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, the assistant House minority leader, is sponsoring the bill, L.D. 1629, “An Act to Protect the Elderly from Tax Lien Foreclosures,” on behalf of the governor. It was crafted after an elderly Albion couple lost their home on Lovejoy Pond to foreclosure late last year and were evicted after the town sold the house.

The bill would create a foreclosure process that municipalities would be required to follow to foreclose a tax lien successfully on property owned by someone 65 or older. The pre-foreclosure process would involve active help from the municipality with an abatement application and mediation, if necessary, to create a reasonable tax payment plan.

LePage and a Maine Municipal Association spokesman disagree strongly about the bill the governor initiated after he tried unsuccessfully to keep Richard and Leonette Sukeforth, of Albion, in their home at 180 Marden Shore Road after the town foreclosed on it in December 2016 for nonpayment of taxes.

Municipal association spokesman Eric Conrad, contacted for comment, argues the bill would cause nonseniors’ tax bills to rise if seniors are allowed tax payment plans or if they are given plans but do not make payments. He said 65 percent of all property tax collections go to kindergarten-through-grade 12 education.

LePage responded fiercely to Conrad’s assessment in a recent phone interview, saying Conrad’s 65 percent figure is not only incorrect, he “knowingly issued an untruth and knows better.”

“He is a communist,” LePage said. “He’s just full of bull. The state of Maine turns their back on the elderly. It’s horrific what they do to their elderly.” Conrad said he is not a communist.

Conrad said MMA strongly opposes the bill, which he says outlines a procedure to be used to mediate a tax matter, and that process is not yet set up and would cost a lot of money statewide. Mediators and attorneys would have to be paid and there would be an effect on municipal staff members who would have to take part in the process, attend meetings and set up payment plans, according to Conrad.

LePage angrily criticized not only Conrad, but MMA in general.

“The MMA is probably the worst possible tax organization in the state of Maine,” he said. “They will do anything to anybody for taxes, and the sad thing about that is they get paid by towns through property taxes, and he’s wrong when he says 65 percent of property taxes go to schools. It’s closer to 50 percent or 51 percent. The state is actually paying considerably more.”

The bill also would create additional provisions related to the sale of foreclosed property for all homeowners, including allowing a homeowner to pay the tax lien with interest and costs before a tax sale, allowing the homeowner to remain in the home until the sale is complete and requiring use of a real estate broker when the property is sold. It also would require return to the homeowner of any net proceeds from the sale after adjustment is made for taxes owed, interest, fees and other costs.

Conrad said the way the bill is set up now, the town cannot force a sale if someone does not abide by a payment plan. The bill also does not set a cap on the value of a home, so a modest house or a million-dollar house could qualify.

“It could be anybody that could say they can’t pay their taxes,” Conrad said, adding that capping a home value would help.

Further, Conrad maintained that if the state lived up to a commitment to revenue sharing, that would go a long way to ease the burden on taxpayers.

Elected officials, many of whom are seniors, are keenly aware that property taxes are rising and increased taxes affect seniors, according to Conrad. He said an Albion selectman visited the Sukeforths to discuss the tax problem before the foreclosure.

“That’s like the gold standard of service,” he said.

But Sukeforth family members and a neighbor who tried to buy the house back by sealed auction bid say they think Richard Sukeforth suffers from dementia and did not understand fully what was happening.

LePage maintains the town treated the Sukeforths badly and no one should have to go through what they did.

“The elderly are really a target in this state — the elderly and the 18-year-olds — and I don’t understand why,” he said, apparently referring to his criticism of recent legislation that increases the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. “I don’t understand the logic.”

LePage insisted L.D. 1629 was rolled over to next year because the Legislature didn’t want to deal with it and it is a bill that can work. He said the state needs both 18-year-olds and seniors in the state and they ought to be supported. The governor said he has a plan for next year — to work to oust anyone from office who does not support 18-year-olds and seniors.

“We’re trying to keep them in their houses longer and trying to help them … everyone that’s against that should not be in the Legislature, and I will fight to get them out,” he said.

After LePage tried to help the Sukeforths get their house back after the December foreclosure, the town sold the house, which really is a camp, in a sealed-bid auction. The new owner had bid $6,500 for the property — just $500 more than a Sukeforth family friend offered — and then on Dec. 29, 2016, that owner evicted Sukeforth and his wife, Leonette, as she lay sick in a hospital bed in the home.

MaryAnn Sawlan-Neiman, who owns a camp near the former Sukeforth home and submitted the $6,000 sealed bid, said Friday from her home in Dracut, Massachusetts, that she will testify at a public hearing on the bill if she is asked to. Even today, she gets choked up when thinking about the Sukeforths losing their home, which the new owner has since demolished. Sawlan-Neiman said now trees are being cut on the property.

“I was going to pay the taxes,” she said. “This is so heartbreaking. They wouldn’t even take the money. It was so sad.”

LePage said the foreclosure and sale process may have been legal, but it was unethical and no elderly couple should have to go through what the Sukeforths did.

Richard Sukeforth, 81, and his wife, Leonette, 80, have been living with their daughter in Holden since their eviction, though Leonette, who is ill, has been in and out of the hospital and now is in a rehabilitation center.

Richard Sukeforth said in a phone interview Friday that he would testify at a public hearing to help others who might be in a similar situation keep their homes.

“People like myself need a lot of help,” he said. “I don’t have nothing no more. They took my camp and tore it down. The things they do — that was done so underhanded that it wasn’t real. Maybe one day if I live long enough, I’ll get another place.”

According to Espling, the taxation committee could make changes to the bill and will hold a public hearing on it.

“That will all happen in January or after January,” Espling said. “I would think that they would try to move it right along.”

Espling said she wants to ensure that older people are able to stay in their homes for as long as possible and that the process used in foreclosure situations is fair.

Input from the public will be important at the hearing, she said.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to hear from the public on what should or should not be done,” she said. “People can contact members of the committee whether they go to the public hearing or not and can email or send letters. They can email the committee clerk directly.”

Clarification: This story was updated Nov. 6, 2017, to include a response from Eric Conrad, who denied being a communist.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17