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Effingham selectmen circle wagons over tardy taxes report

April 15, 2010
EFFINGHAM On Tuesday, Selectmen and residents reacted to WMUR's (Channel 9) report that four town officials collectively owe more than $10,000 in unpaid property taxes.

The television news story, which broke on Monday night, stated that long time selectman William Piekut was behind in his taxes every year since 2003 and had liens on his property in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Piekut, who was first elected to the board in 2001, still has a lien on his property from 2008 and has unpaid taxes in 2009. The story also identified these other officials as being behind on their taxes: planning board member Stefan Zalewski, budget committee member Paul Bartoswicz, and Deputy Treasurer Terri Carrier.

Although selectmen apparently didn't comment on the record for WMUR's story, they broke their silence at Tuesday night's meeting.

"I'm not making excuses for myself," said Piekut admitting that he was behind on his taxes. "I'm really getting upset about this whole issue. My wife has been dragged into this along with other people's spouses...They don't need to be dragged through this."

Piekut maintained that he is being treated the same as another resident in town. Further, the New Hampshire Constitution doesn't require a people to pay their taxes on time before running for elected office or voting, he said.

Piekut claimed he knew who was responsible for informing WMUR of his tax status, but he wouldn't divulge his suspect's identity at the selectmen's meeting. However, he would disclose his suspect's identity and motivation on his own personal time. Piekut alleged part of that person's motivation was that he was running for school board in March. Piekut's bid for a school board seat was unsuccessful.

"It was malicious," said Piekut of his suspect's motivation.

In addition, Piekut apologized to Bartoswicz for dragging him into the controversy, which Piekut said originated with him. Piekut also lamented that WMUR reporters visited his house and his work place. Piekut works as a bus driver.

"You can still turn around in my driveway," said resident Carol Pfister in support of Piekut.

Bartoswicz replied that selectmen have put the town in good fiscal shape. When Piekut first came to the board two other selectmen and the bookkeeper resigned and the town was near bankruptcy, he said.

Selectmen's chair John Meisner dismissed the story. He said 265 liens went out and the informant and television news decided to pick on a few officials. State law allows property owners to be behind on their taxes for three years before their property gets deeded to the town. In Effingham, property owners get an extra 90 days and several warnings before that happens.

"There was no wrong-doing," Meisner said.

Meisner also thought he knew the identity of the person who tipped off WMUR. That person had his or her property taken because of back taxes and was given an extra 90 days to pay. Selectmen don't want to take anybody's property, said Meisner.

Further, Meisner said the real story is that although the town is owed $500,000 in back taxes, selectmen were able to lower the tax rate by 84 cents. Meisner said he told the WMUR reporter that Piekut was being treated just like any other resident.

"He gets liened like anyone else," said Meisner.

Having back taxes is actually good for the town, Piekut reasoned. The interest rate on late taxes goes from 12 percent to 18 percent when there is a lien on the property. A business would consider the interest an account receivable and there's really no other place such an interest rate is paid.

The town raised $70,000 from interest and penalties WMUR reported.

Meisner praised Piekut for being vocal about trying to save the town money and getting involved in the school system, which consumes two thirds of the tax rate.

But some unnamed residents told WMUR that it's a conflict of interest for officials with tax problems to represent the town. Presumably that's because officials decide how much money to spend -- thus have the ability to lighten the tax burden.

At the meeting, several residents were supportive of Piekut. One man called the story "yellow journalism."

Resident Kamal Nath said WMUR should have and spent more time analyzing the story in order to put it in some kind of societal context. Nath called the story poor journalism and sensationalism.

Resident Gwen English said she didn't like the story because it painted the town in a negative light.

"Who lives in the community and cares so little about it that they want to drag the entire community through the mud?" asked English. "It did nothing but humiliate and belittle people. Effingham needs sunshine."

The following is a list of the total amounts the four officials still owe the town, according to records provided by the Town Tax Collector Marilynn Maughan: Bartoswicz owes $2,326, Richard Carrier, Terri Carrier's husband, owes $1,244, Piekut owes $3,802, and Zalewski owes $10,681.

Resident Joan Sullivan asked if the other selectmen have been paying their taxes.

Meisner said he and selectman Timothy Eldridge are caught up.

Outside the meeting, resident Lisa Sargent said the town's roads are in poor shape and there are few services for children — symptoms of the town's tax issues.

Martin Lord Osman
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