Community Development, WEDC Catch Heat for Tax Seminar
WEDC Chairman Bob Young and Community Development Director Laura Scott faced the board on Monday.
A recently postponed tax abatement business seminar came under fire during the Feb. 25 meeting of the Board of Selectmen as board members believed that the event was sending the wrong message for Windham.
Community Development Director Laura Scott and Windham Economic Development Committee Chairman Bob Young both faced a firestorm of questions related to the event.
A couple of issues were at hand. The first was the usage of a third party source to educate seminar attendees on tax-related issues rather than going in house with the town's tax assessor, Rex Norman.
The second was one of the discussion topics – tax abatements.
"It seems that you are flying in the face of trying to bring good taxes into town by telling businesses how they can battle our town to get their valuations reduced," said Selectman Kathleen DiFruscia.
Selectman Roger Hohenberger referred to abatements as an "adversarial relationship" between a resident and the town, where as tax assessments can be something of a good, one-on-one relationship.
Young told the board that the seminar was not discussed by the WEDC, but rather he made a "quick decision on a busy morning" to respond to Scott's inquiry about the event on his own.
He assured the board that events will be discussed in future WEDC meetings, and also took the time to praise both Norman and the abatement process.
Perhaps the most heated criticism came from Selectman Ross McLeod, who vocally questioned Scott's allegiance to the town.
"Your overall responsibility is to the town," he told Scott. "You're a town employee. Your overall allegiance and responsibility is primarily to the town."
McLeod also argued to Scott that the timeline to inform Norman that the seminar was taking place was very short.
"For me, I'm very upset that you for all practical purposes completely ignored him on this," said McLeod. "I would hope that this does not happen again."
Town Administrator Dave Sullivan said that he had a meeting with Scott and Norman and can say with confidence that the incident will not repeat itself.
Scott defended the intent of the seminar, which would have been conducted by McLane Law Firm of Manchester, N.H. and B.C. Underwood, LLC, a real estate counseling and appraisal company.
She said that she reached out to the two firms after she saw that both had completed a seminar in Concord.
"When I talked to them, it was very clear it was an educational seminar," said Scott.
Scott explained that she didn't look at the seminar as a money item like either the board or assessor do, but rather as an educational perspective for the local business community.
She added that it has been a reoccurring theme from the business community that they don't understand assessments.
"It really was, from what I had been hearing form the business community, not understanding assessments, not understanding what to do, not understanding the abatement process," she said.
DiFruscia asked Norman to weigh in on whether Scott or business owners have made him aware of the problem in Windham.
Norman said it has not been communicated to him by either party, but that he has asked members of any town department to call him on a regular basis if they get a question about a property.
As for abatements, he said he has filed 10 this year, and only one for a commercial property owner.
Norman didn't quite echo Hohenberger on his usage of the term "adversarial" when it comes to the tax abatement process, rather saying the abatement process is a last resort and he looks at it as a layer of bureaucracy.
Selectman Phil LoChiatto chimed in favoring conversation on the issue, saying he doesn't mind the substance of a tax abatement discussion and that the problem was the approach of the seminar, not the message.
Scott told the board that the hope is to get Norman to conduct a seminar in the fall.