Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Gorham's Businesses Struggle Under Financial Pressure from Town's Deliberate Property Tax Gouging Scheme

 "I have lived in Gorham since 1978, married, raised a family and operated a small construction company. My municipal experience began in 1986 with my appointment to the budget committee. Since then I’ve served multiple terms on the board of selectmen, planning board, school board and many other committees at the town and county level. In the last four years, I’ve chaired the budget committee. I’ve been asked why I have spent so much of my time serving on so many different committees, and the short answer is that I enjoy it. With but rare exception, I like the people I serve with and when things go well there is satisfaction in solving community problems."           Mike Waddell, March 8, 2017

By: Rich Bergeron

     Christopher Boldt is not afraid to play the unofficial role of Town Tax Collector when the situation calls for it. Back in 2016, he closed a deal with a struggling paper mill in Gorham to get them to start paying back taxes while squaring all their other debts. The settlement also called for the company to accept a compromise of $9 million for the mill's property tax valuation. The town had been willing to go to court to try to justify a $13 million valuation. Boldt acted like he saved the day by giving the mill owners a break and a $4 million tax cut. 

      InDepthNH describes the scenario as follows: 

The largest amount is $1.1 million owed to the town of Gorham going back to 2013, says Christopher Boldt, a lawyer for the town.

The company is now making weekly payments of $10,000 on the debt. In addition, it is paying $5,000 a week to cover 2016 taxes, Boldt said.

In exchange, the town is reducing the value of the plant from $13 million, an amount the company has disputed, to $9 million. In the summer of 2018, the parties agree to reconsider that amount, according to the agreement between Gorham and the plant.

The town is also waiving about $225,000 in interest, Town Manager Robin Frost has said.

The deal includes settling the company’s suit against the town challenging the $13 million assessment.

“It is a good resolution of a long-standing bit of litigation,” Boldt said."


     What is peculiar here is the fact that even the reduced $9 million valuation is something the two sides will have to revisit as part of this settlement. This agreement appears to be made under financial duress. It's no surprise bankruptcy ensued for the mill late in 2020. Even new owners backed by Behrens Investment Group in New York balked at the high assessment fees, though: 

“We have been meeting off and on with the new owners of the paper mill, and we still haven’t come to a mutual agreement on property taxes, which doesn’t come as any great surprise,” Waddell said. (2021, Conway Daily Sun)

     Even with the support of government loans due to the pandemic, businesses in Gorham are still facing oppressive taxation that doesn't appear to be letting up. Gorham utility companies like FairPoint and Portland Pipe Line have engaged in years of costly litigation to give themselves a level playing field. Many struggling businesses in town do not have the same luxury of being able to pay for expensive attorneys and specialized law firms to champion their abatement requests. 

     One Portland Pipe Line abatement case resulted in a complex 35-page decision handed down by the NH Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA) in July of 2013. It was a mixed ruling, but most importantly the BTLA took square aim at Sansoucy's analysis methods: 

"Nonetheless, the board finds the Davis Appraisals provide a better starting point for arriving at reasonable findings regarding the value of the Property in each tax year than the Sansoucy Appraisal and therefore placed more weight on the Davis Appraisals. The Sansoucy Appraisal is more detailed and voluminous, presenting a much larger mass of cost and other data. But the board cannot give determinative weight to this mass of Sansoucy data because it was used in a manner inconsistent with the highest and best use of the Property as a 4.95 mile segment of a fully integrated 165.77 mile pipeline. For this fundamental reason, undue reliance on the cost approach as employed by Sansoucy is not justified by the evidence presented. The Taxpayer noted this reliance led Sansoucy to “wildly fluctuating values for exactly the same pipeline property.” (See Taxpayer’s Post-Hearing Brief, pp. 6-9 and 14-19.) The board agrees to some extent that extreme fluctuations in the year to year market value estimates for an established pipeline gives further cause to question the “credibility” and reasonableness of the Sansoucy value conclusions. (Id.)"

      Portland Pipe Line had some of the Pierce Atwood Law Firm's greatest legal minds on the case. They proved almost a decade ago that when it comes to Sansoucy, the word "credibility" should always be in quotation marks. Perhaps even more crucial, though, is the proof in that decision of George Sansoucy's 20 years of employment as the assessor for Gorham, New Hampshire. 

     The New Hampshire BTLA so sharply criticizing Sansoucy's methods after he'd been using them for nearly 20 years in town is troubling enough. The larger concern is that Sansoucy's unorthodox and complex assessment methods are still getting the town into dire legal straits nearly nine years later. 

     Yet, Gorham still has his firm contracted through 2026. The town pays $290 per hour for a senior employee, and at the low end of the spectrum is the $125 per hour the town pays for clerical workers at the firm:

Gorham Contract For George Sansoucy Through 2026 (

     While fighting the Portland Pipeline case, even the county kicked in $10,000 for "attorney's fees" as suggested by Skip Sansoucy himself. The minutes of an April 21, 2014 Gorham Selectmen's meeting lay out exactly how the "utility valuation defense fund" came into play: 

     "At the August 14, 2013 Coos County Commissioners’ meeting, the Commissioners agreed to give the Town of Gorham $10,000 for legal defense of the Portland Pipeline Utility abatement case. Chairman Jackson went on to say that this funding is not to be confused with the article in the Berlin Daily Sun where the City of Berlin requested monies for the Great Lakes Hydro abatement case. Chairman Jackson stated that he had received a call from Coos County Sheriff Gerry Marcou asking why the Town had not requested the money from the County as the funding option would be expiring soon."

     The message is clear: high valuations are a high priority in Coos County. Gorham is doing their part, especially when it comes to business and industry in the town. Consider the case of KGI Gorham, LLC and their abatement request granted by the BTLA after the town tried to justify a $4,561,200 assessment for a shopping center in town on just under 10 acres: 

"For all these reasons, the board finds the Taxpayer carried its burden of proving the tax year 2012 and tax year 2013 assessments are disproportional. Therefore, the board finds market value of the Property in the amounts of $2,750,000 for tax year 2012 and $2,700,000 for tax year 2013. After adjustment by the levels of assessment for each tax year, the board finds assessments of $2,590,500 and $2,570,400 for 2012 and 2013, respectively. If the taxes have been paid, the amount paid on the value in excess of $2,590,500 for 2012 and $2,570,400 for 2013 shall be refunded with interest at six percent per annum from date paid to refund date. RSA 76:17-a. Until the Town undergoes a general reassessment or in good faith reappraises the property pursuant to RSA 75:8, the Town shall use the 2013 ordered assessment of $2,570,400 for subsequent years. RSA 76:17-c, I and I"

     That's nearly a $2 million discrepancy we're talking about here. It seems to fit the pattern of inflated assessments for businesses, industry and utilities. It's what obviously keeps the local political power base intact and the voters in residential areas happy. 

      Another Sansoucy folly involved the Androscoggin Valley Country Club, which straddles two assessment jurisdictions (Gorham and Shelburne). On the Gorham side of the golf course, Sansoucy argued the best use of the property would be a residential subdivision despite the property long being used as a golf course. The BTLA took issue with that whole concept of applying a "best use" approach that didn't actually fit the property at all

"In estimating the value of Lot 1 as a separate parcel, Gorham’s appraiser, Mr. Sansoucy, did not use either the sales or the income approaches but instead relied only on the cost approach, estimating the market value of the 33.7 acres of land in Gorham “as vacant” to be $250,100 and then adding an estimate of the depreciated cost of the improvements ($93,200). See Sansoucy Appraisal (Municipality Exhibit C), pp. 3, 19 and 22. The board finds there are several problems with this approach."

"Further, the board does not agree with Mr. Sansoucy’s use of single-family residential lots as valid sale comparables to derive a “first acre” value of the land at $33,500 and the next nine acres (because of Route 2 frontage) at $196,000. Id. at p. 22. (Mr. Sansoucy valued the remaining 23.7 acres as “backland” at $20,600. Id.) Given the flood plain and wetland issues associated with Lot 1,1 the board finds it unlikely, and against the weight of the evidence, to assume someone would purchase it in an arm’s-length transaction for $343,300 in order to develop ten single-family residential lots simply because it is presently zoned for such use, which is the crux of Mr. Sansoucy’s approach. Added into the mix of factors not adequately considered in his appraisal are some questions regarding the adequacy of demand and the feasibility and cost of obtaining the requisite subdivision and other approvals that may be required which the board find make an alternative residential use of Lot 1 too speculative to be relied upon. The Golf Course is a legal, non-conforming use and the board finds the contributory value in this use, which can continue indefinitely, is higher than it would be if Lot 1 is isolated and viewed as a potential 10-lot single-family residential development."

     Maybe Sansoucy is a big fan of classic comedian George Carlin, who often proposed making golf courses into low-income housing: GEORGE CARLIN on Homelessness and Golf - YouTube (relevant commentary starts around the 2:30 mark). 

     The town doesn't always use Sansoucy to defend business valuations at the BTLA level. Sometimes they find a different expert to try to justify their flawed approach. The case of Northway Bank vs. the Town of Gorham involved a $530,000 assessment for 2015 that went down to $280,800 thanks to the BTLA granting the bank's abatement request. Sounds like a slick attempt at white collar bank robbery, but it obviously backfired. 

     Lead Mt. LLC also challenged the town's $881,500 assessment of a warehouse on 6.39 acres for tax year 2015. The BTLA approved an abatement that brought the actual assessment for 2015 down to an even $500,000. 

      Mike Waddell leads the board of selectmen and has described the town of Gorham as pro-business. He claims to run his own construction business, and this site reports that Waddell Construction takes in $114,595 in annual revenue. The business, reportedly consisting of just one employee, is based out of 45 Alpine Street in Gorham. The property consists of a 5-bedroom house on .68 acres. The town has this lot assessed at $88,900, where it has been set since 2019. It certainly appears Gorham is pro-Mike Waddell's Business. 

     Waddell is a listed owner on two other properties in town, which are both carrying very low assessments:

     So, while other businesses struggle to afford their property taxes, Waddell keeps his own home-based construction company on the lowest end of the town tax spectrum. Membership has its benefits. 

     We have to consider for a moment what Mike Waddell neglected to mention in the blurb that begins this article. One of Waddell's only stints on the outside looking in at town government in Gorham came when he spearheaded the town hall restoration project as the main architect. Inmates from the Northern NH Correctional Facility served as cheap labor for much of the project. 

     Much like old William Shakespeare felt compelled to build his own theater, Mike Waddell built his own town hall to perform for the people in. The photos of the whole project reflect an attention to detail and level of professionalism that is impeccable. If only he led the Board of Selectmen with the same sense of duty and responsibility, the town of Gorham might have a much more fair and equitable property tax system. 

     The next article will focus on more successful property valuation challenges in the town of Gorham and the entanglement of Christopher Boldt and George Sansoucy in the whole grand scheme of things. 

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)

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