More than a quarter of the candidates for select boards in Somerset County have not paid their 2015 property taxes, but most shrug it off as they seek elective office to positions in which they’ll oversee municipal budgets and public spending.

But a pair of experts on municipal government said voters and candidates should take the issue more seriously.

Candidates who don’t pay taxes on time set a bad example for their fellow residents, a Colby College professor of government and a government ethics expert said this week. Overdue taxes also could present a conflict of interest for board members who have to make decisions on municipal spending and tax-related issues, they said.

“Taxes are a burden that falls on all of us,” said Calvin Mackenzie, a government professor at Colby College in Waterville. “Certainly the people who are running for positions in government to create programs that are going to cost money should be paying their taxes just like anybody else.”

Nine of 33 candidates for boards in 16 Somerset County towns have outstanding 2015 property taxes, according to municipal records from those towns.

Of the nine, two candidates owe more than $9,000 in overdue property taxes. Elections in the county’s towns start Friday and continue through the month.

Bruce Obert, who is running for selectman and two other government seats in Norridgewock, owed $9,412 in real estate taxes as of Feb. 23 and $2,089 in personal property taxes going back to 2010, according to collection accounts from the Town Office. Property taxes were due Sept. 15, according to the assessor’s town Web page.

Obert is one of 11 candidates running for five seats on the Board of Selectmen, including two others who also have outstanding taxes. The election is scheduled for Monday.

Obert said last week that since the town isn’t “too worried” about hiring local contractors, “I’m not worried about paying taxes to them.” Obert, a contractor, is also running for Planning Board and sewer commission, on both of which he is currently a member.

“It’s our tax dollars that pay when they buy winter sand or when they hire a contractor from out of town to do work,” he said. “None of that gets spent in town.”

Obert said he has three outstanding real estate bills and several others that have been paid. “I don’t see where that’s a big deal as far as when it comes to running for office,” he said.

Obert, who was recorded last fall at a sewer commissioners’ meeting accusing the town manager of having an “attitude” and trying to hold an illegal meeting about her, is not alone among candidates in Somerset County who are unconcerned about their outstanding tax debts. Many candidates for public office told the Morning Sentinel that their unpaid taxes have no affect on their ability to do the job.

Vern Worthen II, who is running uncontested for first selectman in Mercer, owed $9,022 as of Feb. 18. He said he also is unconcerned about his unpaid property taxes. Mercer will hold its election on Friday. The town’s tax bills were mailed in July and those not paid by Sept. 29 started incurring interest charges.

Worthen, an incumbent who recently was accused of blocking other property owners from getting to their land on Brown Road in Mercer, said it is a benefit to both the town and himself if he pays late taxes, with interest, rather than if he takes out a loan to pay them on time.

“Basically, I did not pay my taxes this year because it was cheaper for me to use that money, then to go to my bank and borrow money at an increased rate,” Worthen said. “The town of Mercer gets a pretty good return on (their interest rate) for unpaid taxes.”

TAXING QUESTIONS

According to state law, the only requirements for municipal office are that a person be a resident of the state, at least 18 years old and a citizen of the United States. A municipal officer such as a selectman or mayor also must be a registered voter and a resident of the municipality in which he or she is running for office.

Experts, including Mackenzie and the head of a nonprofit group focused on governmental ethics, said that while there might not be laws that keep delinquent taxpayers from running for office, whether someone pays taxes and whether they do so on time can be a reflection on how prepared they are to serve the public.

“It hardly sets a good example for the public if its representatives don’t pay their taxes,” said Richard Wechsler, director of research for the nonprofit group City Ethics. “It also sends the message that it’s OK for a council member not to pay her taxes, that she’s special, even if she has to pay the same interest and penalties as everyone else.”

Some municipal governments also have ordinances requiring all taxes to be paid before an elected official takes office.

Mackenzie said he is not aware of any federal law that would keep someone from running for office if the person hasn’t paid taxes, but noted that a candidate’s history of paying taxes is an important consideration for voters.

“Part of the judgment we make on candidates is whether they perform effectively as citizens, and if they’re not paying their taxes, I don’t know how you’re going to conclude they’re performing effectively as citizens,” Mackenzie said. “We’re all supposed to pay our taxes, and the law requires that. If you haven’t paid your taxes, at some point you’re breaking the law.”

Obert and some other candidates for select boards in Somerset County said their overdue property taxes are not a cause for concern as long as their property is not in foreclosure or the taxes aren’t several years overdue.

“It’s not like I’m three years behind and they’re taking the property,” Obert said. “How many people owe taxes in Norridgewock?”

Dozens of residents in Norridgewock have not paid taxes, according to the 2016 town report. Three of them are running for the Board of Selectmen. Overall, the town, with a population of about 3,400, has a list of overdue taxes with more than 600 entries going back years, though some of those are the same resident with multiple properties.

Another Norridgewock select board candidate, Nicholas Quimby, said unpaid taxes would be an issue if the person habitually didn’t pay.

“As far as having a large sum of back taxes, for more than one year, I think that’s a problem,” said Quimby, who owed $1,184 as of Feb. 23. “If people aren’t trying, that’s a problem.”

Wechsler said if candidates have not paid their taxes, it raises a potential conflict of interest if they have to make decisions about other residents who haven’t paid taxes. In that situation, a candidate who has not paid should refrain from participating in the decision, Wechsler said.

Dan Harriman, a Canaan candidate, said it’s up to voters to decide how important it is.

“Everyone gets a town report, and the list (of unpaid property taxes) is right in there; so if they don’t want to vote for someone, it would be up to them,” said Harriman, a select board candidate who owed more than $5,000 as of last week.

He is one of two candidates — along with Garrett Buzzell, who does not owe unpaid taxes — running for two open seats on the Board of Selectmen. That election is scheduled for March 21.

“The decisions we make when a property is being foreclosed on, that would be three years after the taxes are due,” Harriman said. “It’s not because they’re six or eight months late paying their taxes.”

A PUBLIC ISSUE

Other Somerset County select board candidates who owed 2015 property taxes as of last week included New Portland candidates Lorie Agren and Raymond Poulin, who are running against each other for one open seat on the Board of Selectmen. The election is set for Friday.

Agren owed $778 and Poulin, $975, and both declined to comment.

A candidate in Starks, Shane Sours, is running against incumbent First Selectman Paul Frederic, and Sours owed $671 as of Feb. 24. He could not be reached for comment. The election in Starks is on March 11, and tax payments were due Dec. 19.

In Smithfield, Richard Moore, first selectman, is running uncontested for re-election on March 12. Moore is behind about $380 on his property taxes and said it’s because he bought a motorcycle last year. He said he doesn’t think the small amount of money — which he plans to pay — will make a big difference in the town budget or in his ability to serve as a selectman.

“I had a hard time. I’m not the world’s wealthiest man, but I love my town and I’m not out to make things harder for us,” Moore said, adding that he wanted to apologize to residents for falling behind on taxes.

Like Moore, another Norridgewock candidate, Laura Lorette, owed $2,047 in real estate taxes as of last week and said that at times she has struggled to pay her taxes on time as a single mother and local business owner. She also owed more than $300 in personal property taxes going back to 2012 as of last week.

Candidates in Norridgewock’s 11-person race for Board of Selectmen who do not have outstanding taxes are Brian Aubry, Joshua Chartrand, Charlotte Curtis, Matthew Everett, Ron Frederick, James Hilton, James Lyman and Sara Wilder.

“Certainly people have always been in arrears at certain times in their lives for whatever their circumstances are,” Lorette said. “I think there are many issues that should be discussed as far as the candidates and issues go, and this shouldn’t be the only priority in the election.”

Nearly every town in central Maine has a lengthy list of unpaid property taxes that usually are published in annual town reports.

That doesn’t mean those people shouldn’t run for elected office, but voters should know if a candidate hasn’t paid, Mackenzie said.

“If you want to be a candidate for office and you haven’t paid your taxes, the voters should know that you haven’t paid your taxes and they can decide if you’re the best candidate or not,” he said. “I’m sure everybody who hasn’t paid taxes has some excuse for that, but when you’re running for office, that becomes a public issue.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm