Of all the utterances that echoed through the State House before, during and after Gov. Paul LePage’s State of the State speech Tuesday evening, Richard Sukeforth’s was perhaps the most telling.

“This is unusual,” Sukeforth, 80, told Morning Sentinel reporter Amy Calder as he munched on a sandwich and sipped punch in the governor’s Cabinet room before heading to the House balcony for LePage’s address. “I don’t very often get an invitation to anything.”

Yet there he was, Exhibit A in LePage’s crusade to essentially prevent Maine municipalities from enforcing the law against those who refuse – or forget – to pay their property taxes year … after year … after year …

Let’s begin with the obvious: Sukeforth and his ailing wife, Leonette, are, without question, sympathetic figures.

Old and frail, they were evicted in December from their home on Lovejoy Pond in Albion. The town had foreclosed on and then sold the property after the Sukeforths failed to pay $4,000 in property taxes that had accumulated over the past several years.

It’s a complicated story, well documented by Calder over the past two months. But essentially it boils down to two very different narratives.

Friends and family say Richard Sukeforth, a military veteran, suffers from an early stage of dementia and should not be held responsible for losing track of his finances.

They also say the town should have accepted a last-minute offer by a caring neighbor to pay off the tax bill – albeit after the town had foreclosed and formally put the property up for auction.

The town counters that it forgave the Sukeforths’ back taxes for two years and tried repeatedly to resolve the issue with them. But in the end, town officials say, the Sukeforths’ continued failure to pay left them no choice but to follow the law, foreclose and sell the property to the highest bidder.

That would be neighbor Jason Marks. He submitted the winning bid of $6,500 for the Sukeforths’ home – described by Calder as a “rundown camp” – back in August.

Marks says he offered to rent the house back to the Sukeforths while they made arrangements on where to go next. But, he told Calder, Sukeforth refused to pay.

Marks also tried to clean up the property at the behest of his insurance company. Again, he said, Sukeforth refused.

Marks even went so far as to contact Sen. Susan Collins’ office to see whether she might be able to help the Sukeforths. A staffer there said Sukeforth “fell through every crack there is,” he recalled.

“It’s not that I bought the property with the intentions of kicking him out and being done with it,” Marks insisted. “I tried doing something along the way to help.”

Enter LePage, who in recent weeks has used the Sukeforths as his rallying cry for keeping elderly Mainers in their homes via reverse mortgages, tax abatements, even signing the property over to the town to ensure the back taxes are paid upon the homeowner’s death.

All ideas worth considering, to be sure.

But here’s the rub: At the same time LePage advocates for protection from tax foreclosure on the elderly (“In fact, it should be like this for everyone,” he said at one point), he continues to pursue his holiest of grails: outright elimination of Maine’s income tax.

And how might he accomplish that? Well, there’s increasing and broadening the sales tax to the tune of about $1.5 billion – the amount now raised through the income tax.

That would be a huge net gain for those wealthy Mainers who currently pay hefty income tax bills and could absorb the increased sales tax without even blinking.

But what about those on fixed incomes – like the Sukeforths – who pay little or no income tax? That sales tax increase would be a disaster.

Then there’s the property tax itself.

To suggest that Maine could eliminate its income tax without adversely affecting property tax bills statewide isn’t just intellectually dishonest. It’s a moral affront to the very people LePage claims he’s trying to protect.

Inevitably, in the wake of an income tax repeal, municipal revenue sharing by the state would go down – leaving already cash-strapped municipalities to make up the difference.

Up goes the local property tax.

Ditto for state school funding, which for years has fallen woefully short of the 55 percent share required by state law. Remove the income tax from the state’s revenue stream (citizens initiatives like November’s notwithstanding), and that goal goes from elusive to virtually impossible.

And, once again, up goes the local property tax.

The point here is not that Mainers of limited means, particularly the elderly, don’t need help “aging in place,” as the saying goes. They do – and given Maine’s rising median age, that need is only going to expand.

Rather, what makes LePage’s speech so hard to digest is his clear desire to have it both ways: Save poor, aging Mainers from the nasty property tax in one breath and, in the next, embrace a wealth-friendly policy guaranteed to ratchet the property tax even higher.

And, at the same time, make villains of municipal officials who are legally bound to assess and collect property taxes not based on what tugs on their heartstrings but on what is required by law.

Reading the story of Richard and Leonette Sukeforth, who now live with their daughter in Holden, I came away thinking that it was all so preventable.

A quick, pre-emptive check of the local tax rolls by a family member or friend – it’s all public information, after all – would have been enough to confirm (or refute) Richard Sukeforth’s alleged assurances to those close to him that he had taken care of his tax obligations. When, in fact, he hadn’t.

Someone in his inner circle also might have learned long ago that he was eligible for upwards of $1,200 per month in military pension benefits. After LePage announced that Tuesday, the entire Legislature gave Sukeforth a prolonged – and somewhat ironic – standing ovation.

I have no doubt that all of this – the foreclosure, the eviction, the sudden windfall, the sandwich and punch in the governor’s Cabinet room – leaves Richard Sukeforth bewildered and more than a little confused.

At the same time, I hope he and his wife are better positioned for what years they have left than they were a few months ago.

That, as we say here in Maine, is the way life should be.

But to be used as window dressing even while LePage sells his bait-and-switch approach to tax reform?

That’s just wrong.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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