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Berlin seeks funds for legal appeal against hydro plants

Union Leader Correspondent

April 30. 2014 9:16PM

BERLIN — The Coos County delegation will consider whether to give Berlin $15,000 from the county’s utility-defense fund to help pay legal bills in an assessment dispute with the owner of three hydroelectric dams on the Androscoggin River.

The city assessed the dams, owned by Great Lakes Hydro America, at a cumulative $33.6 million. But the company, in appeals heard earlier this month by the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals, maintains they’re worth only $14 million.

Should the city not prevail — and likewise fail in an appeal of the board’s decision to the N.H. Supreme Court — the net hit on taxpayers could be between $600,000 and $700,000, said City Manager Jim Wheeler on Wednesday.

Wheeler added that it could mean that Berlin’s cumulative tax rate would see a further increase of between $1.50 and $1.75, in addition to any tax increase approved this year.

The Coos County delegation will meet May 12 to act on Berlin’s request for money from the utility-defense fund, which was established last year in response to what are expected to be many challenges of assessments by utility companies.

Currently, both Berlin and neighboring Gorham are awaiting state decisions. Gorham, which has two Great Lakes Hydro dams in its community, is also awaiting a ruling from the state Supreme Court on its appeal of a Board of Tax and Land Appeals decision that held that the Portland-Montreal oil pipeline is worth significantly less than what the town thinks.

No third-party estimates

Wheeler said in addition to defending its interests before the state board, the City of Berlin is also working on a legislative fix that would keep the state Department of Revenue Administration out of the municipal assessment business.

Communities reach their own assessments and property owners theirs, said Wheeler, and disputes should be handled by the Board of Tax and Land Appeals. A third assessment by the DRA, he said, only confuses the situation further.

Berlin is using its own money to fund its appeal of Board of Tax and Land decision, Wheeler said, but since the assessment of utilities has an impact on the county’s revenues, it was decided by the Berlin City Council to ask for an appropriation from the utility-defense fund.

“I think utility companies to some degree hope that the communities who are cash-strapped may not put up a fight or go through the BTLA, but that’s not the case in Berlin,” said Wheeler.

“We intend to follow it through.”

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