Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday lambasted a legislative committee for watering down a bill he initiated to try to protect the elderly from tax lien foreclosure and urged Mainers to contact legislators.

LePage also went after the Maine Municipal Association, which he said “has proven that it is the enemy of the elderly in Maine” by supporting the altered version of the legislation.

“This is not about Democrats or Republicans. This should be about common decency to older people who are vulnerable,” the governor said in a phone interview Thursday before releasing comments in a written radio address and letter.

Since the bill, L.D. 1629, has gone through the Joint Standing Committee on Taxation, it now goes to the speaker of the House, who could call for a vote, and then it would go to the Senate.

“I’m just going to fight,” LePage said in the interview. “If it gets defeated, I’ll campaign for the rest of the year against those who defeat this.”

Asked to respond to LePage’s comments about the association, Executive Director Stephen Gove issued a statement saying the group differs with LePage on the best way to address the issue of property-tax pressure on senior citizens.

“MMA is cautiously optimistic that the full Legislature, like the legislative committee that heard extensive testimony, including from municipal officials, on this bill, will also see that the current property tax system is administered fairly and evenly at the local level,” Gove said in the statement. “The current, amended version of L.D. 1629 includes improvements that MMA supports. We regret it when we read and hear that differences over public policy proposals result in name calling and disparaging comments. MMA will not go there.”

LePage initiated the bill, “An Act to Protect the Elderly from Tax Lien Foreclosures,” after an Albion couple, Richard and Leonette Sukeforth, lost their home on Lovejoy Pond to foreclosure. The town sold the property — worth $70,000 to $80,000, according to LePage — for $6,500 in a sealed-bid auction even though a neighbor offered to pay the back taxes and submitted a bid of $6,000.

The buyer evicted the couple, who are in their 80s, while Leonette Sukeforth was sick and in a hospital bed in the home, demolished the house and constructed another building there. The couple now are in a nursing home.

LePage personally intervened when he heard about the matter and tried to help the couple but was unsuccessful, as all the proper legal avenues were followed in the case.

LePage’s bill had sought to ensure that municipalities help homeowners file for an abatement if they face foreclosure and advise them of the right to seek help through the state’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection to connect with someone who would work with the municipality on the homeowner’s behalf. LePage even mentioned the Sukeforth case in his last two State of the State addresses before the Legislature.

The taxation committee discussed the bill at length in several sessions and ultimately voted Feb. 27 to water down the language before sending it to the full Legislature.

The committee removed much of the bill’s language, including the provision that if a home is foreclosed on, the property may be listed for sale and must be sold by an independent licensed broker at fair market value or at a price which the property is anticipated by that broker to sell within 90 days. It also dropped language saying that if a property is sold, the homeowner would get the proceeds of the sale beyond what is owed the town in taxes, interest and fees.

Some committee members said the bill would require municipal officials to do work beyond their training and cost money. They also said towns already help homeowners who have trouble paying their taxes. They asked for numbers of people foreclosed on in such situations, saying they were not convinced there is a widespread problem.

But LePage maintains that if it happens to one person, that is too many and that municipalities should always work with the person.

LePage said foreclosures such as the Sukeforths’ happen with elderly people who own their homes but get ill and have to decide whether to pay their taxes or buy food and medicine, and then they lose their homes.

“To me, it’s just sinful because it’s just a small group of people who have never been in debt, don’t want to be in debt and are taken advantage of,” LePage said Thursday in a phone interview.

He said he plans to talk with both House and Senate Democrats and Republicans to urge them to vote appropriately on the bill.

LePage said a town could do a reverse mortgage and have the owners borrow money against the house to pay taxes.

“The town never loses money because once there’s a lien on the house, it can’t be sold until the taxes are paid,” he said.

LePage claims a municipality would be made whole if it follows some simple steps he recommends in the bill, and a homeowner would receive equity in his home that he has built up over years.

He said the committee watered the bill down and wanted to include only some additional notification in the process.

“Instead of truly helping the elderly — like my bill would have done — they are doing just enough to check the box and make it look like they have taken action to help our seniors,” his letter says. LePage noted that Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Legal Services for the Elderly and the Maine Council on Aging all testified in support of the bill and that the amended version “is nothing more than a feel-good attempt to make it look like they really are helping the elderly.”

He said the Maine Municipal Association is funded with taxpayer dollars, “but MMA always fights against any initiative that would actually benefit hard-working, property-tax payers. It is a clear conflict of interest.”

Gove, of the municipal association, said municipalities provide crucial services that in many cases are mandated by the federal and state governments.

“Municipalities fund fire and police response services, maintain and plow our roads, hold local elections and provide many other services that Mainers simply cannot live without,” he said. “These services, plus public school funding and county assessments, must be paid for, and property taxes are the primary way that local officials can do so under Maine law. Finally, MMA is a voluntary, membership organization. We are incredibly proud that 485 towns and cities in Maine choose to be members. It is our privilege to serve the local elected officials and their employees, who are the beating heart and soul of government in Maine.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.