Part 3 of 3
(About this series: The burden on New Hampshire property owners to pay their taxes is growing. Over the past decade, median income is down and taxes are up. In a three-day series, the “Monitor” has looked at how this tax tension is playing out across the state, and what happens when people fail to pay. To read all of the stories, go here.
Database: Find out how much taxes have increased in your town since 2009 by searching a database at the bottom of this story.)
If you knock on Larry Davis’s door, you’re likely to hear the radio through the glass panes on the garage he converted into his home. You’ll pass his robust vegetable garden on your way up the driveway, and you’ll see equipment, wood and a trailer off to the side.
The retired mason usually keeps busy growing food on his 2 acres, doing odd jobs around town, hunting or just resting his aching body, tired from decades of physical work. But last week, a stranger’s tap on the Franklin resident’s door woke him from an afternoon nap to his living nightmare: losing his home to unpaid property taxes.
“Oh boy,” Davis said, wiping away tears. “It hurts me.”
In New Hampshire, the property tax burden continues to hurt the people who can afford to pay the least. Property-poor towns and cities struggle with high tax rates and those with low incomes can quickly fall behind on their payments to the point where they are in danger of losing their homes.
Franklin, for instance, has about $496 million in assessed property value among about 8,500 people, and has a tax rate of $25.03 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
By comparison, Weare, with just 300 more residents, has about $786 million in assessed property value. Its tax rate is $22.41.
Franklin has the second-lowest median income of all cities in New Hampshire, and it has one of the highest percentages in the state of people living below the poverty line, at 24 percent.
And in that situation, addressing unpaid property taxes hits the most vulnerable the hardest, said New Hampshire Legal Assistance staff attorney Elliott Berry.
“When you are poor,” Berry said, “your ability to patch together a repayment agreement that you can comply with is impaired.”
Davis knows this firsthand. He learned his was one of 15 properties the Franklin city council voted to deed and eventually seize during its June meeting. He owes $5,227.38 in unpaid taxes and interest – compounded at 18 percent – that has grown since 2014. It’s an amount Davis said he’s tried repaying, but he hasn’t been able to catch up.
City council documents show, for example, Davis has submitted checks for between $29.29 and $700 to pay off his 2014 tax bill, though he still falls just over $700 short on that bill.
“They think they’re paying,” said Davis’s sister, Kathy Tilton, “but all they’re paying is the interest.”
Tilton stopped by to check in on her brother last week, and said she’s trying to do everything she can to help him, though she is struggling with her own tax bills. They don’t have any family members able to lend them money, and Davis said he could never envision living anywhere else.
The 63-year-old said he’s been on Salisbury Road since “the day John Kennedy was shot and killed in 1963,” first as a 10-year-old growing up next door and playing in the neighbor’s yard, and then later as an adult, in his self-made home.
“I want to die here,” Davis said, sitting in his kitchen where a lawn mower and tires were stored in front of a small table. Around his home was a smattering of equipment, food and personal items, all lining the former garage’s walls and concrete floors.
“I’ve been all over the U.S. – there’s no better place to live. It’s peaceful and quiet,” he said, gesturing to his yard. “There’s no place to go I would be happy at.”
But his tax bill has proven too much.
“I don’t know how to get caught up – I don’t know how,” Davis said. He lives on just under $300 in Social Security payments after paying child support. He said that any work he still does is almost always for free, since it’s for people in a similar situation to him – they can’t afford it.
To try to sort things out, Davis said he’s been to Franklin City Hall three times in the past weeks with friend and lawyer Christopher Seufert.
“He’s trying to scrape it up,” Seufert said in a phone interview. Describing Davis as “salt of the earth,” he added, “It’s painful – here’s my friend about to lose his house . . . Larry is truly low income.”
Davis said he’s too embarrassed to apply for additional aid, like food stamps, and lamented that he didn’t better prepare himself financially for an earlier-than-expected retirement.
“I expected to be still working at 80 years old because I’m so strong,” he said. “I’m burned out.”
He added that he felt betrayed by the city because it may take away his home when he truly wants to pay his bills.
“They’re better off to let me keep on trying,” Davis said. “Why do they take your house away from you? I don’t understand it.”Tough times
This time of year is when Franklin City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said she has to do the toughest part of her job and speak with people like Davis, in danger of being evicted from their own homes.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” Dragon said. “Some people are really trying.”
Dragon said at the June city council meeting that 2016 has been the worst in her eight years as city manager for tax liens placed on properties – there were a total of 80 after the most recent tax bill due date in April.
By the time certified letters were sent out in June, however, Dragon said payment plans were worked out for all but 15 property owners. She added that usually anyone who comes in and works with the city on a buy-back plan has the opportunity to stay, given they can find family help or get a loan.
Dragon said there are a few, though, that can’t seem to find a solution.
“It’s difficult because a lot of these properties we’re seeing – they don’t have mortgages and they’re on fixed incomes.”
For the unlucky few, Dragon said about $20,000 is set aside in the budget each year for demolitions or site clean-up. Some properties are sold to abutters, and others sit vacant.
Dragon said as difficult as it is, properties with unpaid taxes must be seized in order to eliminate the burden on other taxpayers.
“You have to address the situation,” she said. “Just ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.”
She added, “I would say that Franklin is one of the communities that goes above and beyond to work with people.”Not a lot to work with
John Tobin, interim director for the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute and previously an attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said he feels for people in Dragon’s shoes.
“The town officials are in this terrible position,” he said. “They’re squeezed. What you have in those towns is people are paying at a higher rate and they’re getting less. It’s stunningly inequitable.”
Franklin in particular has been struggling to compile municipal and school budgets that adequately pay for all vital items – more than 20 teachers received a pink slip this past spring.
Tobin added of the state’s property tax structure, “They hammer homeowners who can’t afford it.”
There are some tax exemptions and abatements under New Hampshire law for people who are elderly or disabled, and there is also an option available to reduce the smallest portion of a tax bill – the state education part – for low- and moderate-income residents.
But, Tobin said, “there isn’t really much tax relief available for working class people.”Finding a way
Even with the relief available in New Hampshire, educating people about it is a challenge. It comes with the territory.
For instance, Ed Corson, a 64-year-old Franklin resident, has had difficulty with his tax bills being sent to the correct person. He said he bought his Trail Street mobile home eight years ago from a couple now living in Florida. Though he “paid them full,” Corson said the paperwork never went through to put the deed in his name.
As a result, the certified letters have been sent Ryan and Maggie Chartier in Florida, and Corson only learned recently his home may be seized.
Dragon said this sometimes happens if the buyer doesn’t file the paperwork with the Merrimack County Registry of Deeds. For his part, Corson said he planned on addressing the issue at city hall this week, where he’ll also go to set up a repayment plan for the $3,412.67 he owes in unpaid property taxes.
Up until now, Corson hasn’t been able to get to those bills. He retired from his job as a nurse at Peabody Home four years ago in order to address his own health: he has been living with AIDS for 23 years, he said.
Corson said he often doesn’t feel well enough to get out of bed. And money is always tight.
“Been in and out of the hospital here and there,” he said. He said Medicare kicked in recently, he’s just finished paying off a $500 electricity bill for the electric heaters he used over the winter after his furnace broke, and he also just caught up with a $400 storage bill.
Now, Corson said, he’s going to get back on track with his taxes. “There’s no place else to go,” he said. “I’m going to pay.”
Other than paying his bills, staying in his cozy, well-decorated home and taking good care of his two dogs, Millie and Lucia, Corson said he really doesn’t want anything else.
“They’re spoiled rotten dogs,” he said while smiling down at the Chihuahua and Border Collie. Otherwise, he added, “I don’t need a fortune.”
As he sorted pills at his kitchen counter, he said he would fight to keep the peace he finds in his home.
“I’m up and I’m staying up,” he said. “I’m a fighter.”
(This story was updated to correct the title for Elliott Berry, a staff attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.)
(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)