Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Rigging the Rates Against the Deepest Pockets Doesn't Stop at Utilities for the Boldt and Sansoucy Gravy Train

"There's something rotten in the state of Denmark." Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV 

Editor's Note: Multiple articles quoted and linked to in this piece are available to view only through paying a subscription fee to the respective newspaper. I will try to include the most relevant quotes from these articles and letters to the editor. I do not represent that newspaper in any way, but I can definitely say these pieces are well worth the few bucks per month you'll have to pay to read them in full.

By: Rich Bergeron

     The town of Gorham, New Hampshire might just be the epicenter of a seismic wave of assessment fraud sweeping across the state. Gorham deserves this distinction thanks to the nefarious collusion between town officials, Town Attorney Christopher Boldt and the George Sansoucy Assessment firm.  

     Though everyone involved in this scheme has managed to avoid any real trouble for engaging in it thus far, their day of reckoning is coming. The dominoes started to fall when Gorham settled a case with the parent company of FairPoint Communications for $497,914 last year. The deal ended 7 years of litigation revolving around an inflated assessment for the company. 

     Town Manager Denise Vallee attempted to downplay the damage done by insisting the funds for settlement were already in a "deferred account" set up just in case the town lost the case. Yet there is no indication where the money to place in that account came from in the first place. I doubt the real perpetrators behind this debacle paid a dime into that deferred account. The taxpayers of Gorham would naturally be responsible for footing this bill under the circumstances. 

     This is despite the fact that George Sansoucy's often-questioned assessment methods are what actually put the town in this precarious position. Nine years of overly inflated assessments (2011-2020) led to this settlement for FairPoint's parent company. Sansoucy is still under contract with the town of Gorham despite the ultimate failure of his unique assessment approach.

     The Chairman of the Board of Selectman in Gorham is Michael L. Waddell. The same article linked above reports that Waddell indicated that "some 100 other communities across the state would also be adversely affected by this ruling." Waddell should know. He actually worked for Sansoucy in 2013 and helped create this mess: 

      Michael Waddell looks more like Sansoucy's boss than the other way around in the photo accompanying the article linked above. The piece describes the Sansoucy agenda in targeting utility companies for not paying enough property taxes. Sansoucy paints those utilities as the enemy in his crusade to make them pay higher rates, and he also targets the Department of Revenue Administration for having a flawed method of assessing such properties. 

      Sansoucy only offered the presentation highlighting these issues after Waddell gave a similar seminar on the subject to the Berlin City Council. This time Sansoucy was selling the plan to some North Country politicians. When asked if he planned to work on any legislation to address the issues he outlined, Sansoucy admitted, "No, I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not a lobbyist."

     That's a strange statement for someone to make when he's literally in the midst of lobbying. Waddell's presentation in Berlin also featured contradictory language: 

“It’s [the state's] not raising the money it should,” he said. “This is a major problem that needs to be fixed.”

Waddell said local officials need to be educated on the utility assessment issue. He said few people understand utility assessment and why valuation matters.

Waddell said Sansoucy has a winning record in defending municipalities on valuation cases. But he said the cost involved in going to court causes many communities to fold.

Waddell noted the state heavily depends on property tax revenues and for that reason he said taxes should be applied fairly.

     Waddell, as a former Gorham Selectman at the time, was in a special position to know just how the changes he proposed would disproportionately benefit residential taxpayers. Fairness doesn't even enter the equation when the stated mission is to make one class of taxpayer take on a more significant tax burden than another just because they have deeper pockets. 

    The old "fair share" narrative is a nice way to distract people from the reality of the situation. The supposed reason to change the valuation method for these utilities was to address all the challenges these companies were mounting against towns enforcing already inflated assessments. So, by this logic, the plan to combat excessively high utility assessments that utilities were already fighting was simply to raise those rates even higher. It's like an abusive father who hears his kid crying after beating him up and yells, "Keep it up, and I'll give you something to really cry about!"

     The benefit for officials in cities and towns that adopt Sansoucy's anti-utility methodology is two-fold. First, the higher assessments for utilities lighten the load on residential property owners and serve as a de facto method of bribing the voting base to keep local government leadership intact. Second, the same leadership accepting Sansoucy into their fold do so knowing he is a convenient scapegoat who they can ultimately shift all the blame to if the scheme goes completely off the rails. Sansoucy can then unleash his socialist clarion call: 

      "I'm just making them pay their fair share." 

     The courts are finally catching up to the reality that there is nothing fair at all about taxing both the rights of ways as well as the property and infrastructure these utilities place in these towns and cities. It's just a sneaky way of double dipping. 

     So, why did it take so long for the courts to start sniffing this scheme out? Perhaps because the legal system in this state is one giant orgy of corruption, and Christopher Boldt is corruption personified. Sansoucy knew he needed a lobbyist and a lawyer to perpetrate this whole scheme. That's exactly what Christopher Boldt became for Sansoucy's cause. 

      When New Hampshire House Bill 324 threatened to interfere with the long game they were both playing in utility assessments, they both put on their lobbying hats to compile this manifesto.

     Among the 20 pages in this document are some real laugh out loud gems like this one: "The creation of this separate and special class of taxpayers will disproportionally and inequitably give special and beneficial treatment to the utilities at the expense of all other taxpayers in the state." (page 7) The converse is also true, so by "fixing" one imaginary problem you create two real ones in this scenario. If you are expressly admitting the plan is to give special treatment to everyone but the utilities, it's still a wholly discriminatory approach, and you've just confirmed it. To paint this process as fair and equitable is pure fraud. 

     Page 13 of the same "educational" pamphlet solidifies the con job Sansoucy and Boldt are colluding to commit with all this assessment manipulation. These are all towns where their scheme's collapse would mean more voting citizens would bear the tax burden. The pamphlet itself is hosted on a town of Berlin web-site. The top two towns listed on the page 13 chart are Berlin and Gorham, and both locales seem to have serious issues with "good old boy network" self-dealing. 

      The very fact that George Sansoucy and Michael Waddell were so tightly aligned with the same anti-utility mission back in 2013 when Waddell worked for Sansoucy is the most troubling aspect of this story so far. Waddell left the board of selectman to work for Sansoucy, and he again became a selectman upon leaving the Sansoucy firm's employment. The looming question is: does Waddell still work for Sansoucy in a roundabout way? 

     Since returning to the board, Waddell has been in a direct position to influence virtually all town matters involving Sansoucy's firm. I have found no evidence that he ever recused himself from any of those matters due to his prior working relationship with Sansoucy. These minutes from a 2016 board of selectman meeting even provide an example of Waddell trying to get the board to give him the green light to take on tasks Sansoucy and Boldt were hired by the town to accomplish. Why is Waddell so intent on doing research Sansoucy and Boldt should be doing? 

     NH House Bill 324 ended up being amended to allow for a commission to study utility property valuation and suggest reforms. Christopher Boldt and George Sansoucy were very active in advising that commission, as we explained in PART FOUR of this series: 

     "By 2018, Boldt found himself an integral member of the Commission to Study Utility Property Valuation and Recommend Legislation to Reform the Current System of Taxing Utility Property in New Hampshire. This was a way to make Sansoucy's property tax generation machine much easier to defend in court by bringing the state itself into the fold. Boldt's name appears in the commission's final report a total of 56 times across 75 pages of material, and Sansoucy is right behind him with 46 mentions. Since they literally participated in crafting the new legislative framework on utility assessments, they in turn gained even more leverage in their coordinated effort to squeeze utility operators for more tax money to help the towns they represented. Thanks to their self-serving input, inflated and inaccurate assessments would become much harder for utility owners to challenge."

     Boldt and Sansoucy's scheme is crumbling now in certain locales like Gorham, so how are they bridging the gap? It appears business and industry owners are the new convenient target, despite Waddell's claim in an article from just about a year ago

     “We’re pro-business, and we hope that our in-town businesses thrive, but, nonetheless, we have to tax them at their ‘highest and best use,’ as state law requires.”

     Mark Lutter, who runs a company called Northeast Property Tax Consultants, took issue with that statement in his February 1, 2021 letter to the editor published in the Berlin Sun. His letter makes the argument that:

 "The commercial and industrial property owners in Gorham are paying taxes that are about 25 to 50 percent too high. I believe this is intentional."

      Lutter presented very compelling evidence to back up that claim, and the town's formal response in the same newspaper only made matters worse. The rebuttal came in the form of a unified front with all three Gorham Selectmen endorsing what amounts to a confession of sorts. The arrogance they display by putting all of this in writing is astounding. The key segments are these two snippets: 

"...the Town has roughly $125 million in commercial, industrial and utility values. A loss of 50 percent of this value would result in a tax increase of over $10 per thousand across all taxpayers in Town. Those property owners that didn’t receive a reduction in value would pay the lion’s share of this property tax increase. As an example, if someone owned a property that was assessed at $100,000, the increase of $10 per thousand would increase that property owner’s annual tax bill by at least $1,000."

 "...the taxpayers of Gorham are not going to get a $10 per thousand of assessed value tax increase if the select board can help it."

     It appears here like these selectmen are bragging about discriminating against commercial businesses, industrial property owners, and utility companies in town and defending the process by pointing to the benefit to all other property owners. That's code for residential homeowners, also known as VOTERS. 

      The fact that these same selectmen spent the bulk of their response trying to poke holes in Lutter's business model just betrays the fact that Lutter touched a nerve. The first thing someone with no real platform of their own does is attack his opponent's character and go straight to the insults. We will delve much further into the Lutter allegations in the next installment. 

      The selectmen allege that Lutter is engaging in predatory claims that have no merit but neglect to mention that Lutter won more than a few appeals with the Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA). We will cover multiple key BTLA rulings in the next article that appear to fully support Lutter's claims. 

     The attitude of these selectmen seems very sensitive to any challenger of any inflated town assessment that might contribute to the lessening of the tax burden on their voters. Waddell has been running the show in Gorham for a long time, and he seems overly confident in his faith in the Sansoucy method: 

"The selectmen have also made it clear to both the KRT and the Sansoucy firms that the values put on the property tax card will be defended by them."

     So, why are the selectmen doing all the defending in this response? They clearly aren't very good at it. They actually attempt to compare commercial property sales to home sales in order to somehow justify businesses being assessed so much higher than prior sales figures justify. Follow their logic and try to get an abatement on your house by citing what a warehouse down the street sold for last week. See how far that gets you. The idiocy is baffling, especially considering they put this garbage in writing:

      "We would also ask that you consider that two medium-sized, older homes recently sold for the following: 15 Corbin Ave., for $125,000 and 16 School St. (recently renovated) for $225,000. In contrast, Mr. Lutter tells us Dunkin Donuts is only worth $125,000 and that the Subway is only worth $140,000."

      The selectmen also suggest that Lutter is motivated by greed in the same sentence they cite his "strange logic." They also suggest he is disconnected from reality, but all this shade throwing bounces right back on them if you do look at reality. 

     This whole "I know you are, but what am I" approach to trying to squelch Lutter's warning sirens should concern every Gorham taxpayer. Even the people who directly benefit from this scheme right now will be doomed to get damaged by it when it all goes up in smoke. If that response is Gorham's best defense of a jacked-up assessment agenda, there is bound to be much more litigation to come. Taxpayers can look forward to many more losing legal defense efforts they will ultimately have to pay all the ridiculous bills for. 

      Remember that FairPoint suit we began this article with? The settlement amount was just the tip of the iceberg. Seven years of engaging in that kind of litigation is not cheap at rates lawyers like Boldt routinely charge municipal clients. This explains why the selectman's response also takes issue with Lutter filing Right to Know requests regarding the town's legal expenses. 

      Meanwhile, George Sansoucy and Christopher Boldt reap all the benefits and big paychecks even when their collective methodology is successfully challenged. They win even when they lose. I can't say the same for the citizens of Gorham. They are effectively being swindled into voting for people who are dumb enough to publicly admit their participation in massive fraud. There is so much of it, we may spend the next four installments outlining all of it in intricate detail.

      Stay tuned. 

Read and Share the entire Christopher Boldt Series:

The Plan B Justice Group: To Be or Not To Be... Corrupt to the Core, The Christopher Boldt Series (Part One)

The Plan B Justice Group: Deep in the Heart of Texas a Scandal is Born, Chris Boldt Plays a Supporting Role (Part Two)

The Plan B Justice Group: Christopher Boldt's Texas-Sized Mistakes Follow Him to New Hampshire (Part Three)

The Plan B Justice Group: Stealing Power: Christopher Boldt Helps Municipalities in New Hampshire Squeeze Utilities For More Tax Dollars (Part Four)

The Plan B Justice Group: Tax Breaks for Town Officials in Berlin Raise Questions About Christopher Boldt's Lack of Legal Ethics (Part Five)

The Plan B Justice Group: Rigging the Rates Against the Deepest Pockets Doesn't Stop at Utilities for the Boldt and Sansoucy Gravy Train (Part Six)

The Plan B Justice Group: Gorham's Businesses Struggle Under Financial Pressure from Town's Deliberate Property Tax Gouging Scheme (Part Seven)

1 comment:

  1. It is unfortunate for the Gorham commercial property owners that the town has hired Skip Sansoucy to revalue 150 properties for 2022. He will over-assess these properties. In Littleton, NH, he raised the assessments on 12 of the larger properties. Of those 12, 9 of the taxpayers filed tax abatements and/or appeals. This is a total 75%. You can expect a similar situation in Gorham. He charges the Gorham taxpayers $290 per hour for his time. It is in his best interest to over-assess the commercial owners because he gets paid $290 per hour to defend the excessive assessment.