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Coos County towns get help in taking on utilities

Union Leader Correspondent

May 15. 2014 9:45PM

WEST STEWARTSTOWN — The Coos County Commission this week began notifying all county communities that they can draw on a special fund to help them defend challenges of their assessments of utility properties.

Meeting in Lancaster on May 7, the three-member commission considered and approved requests from the towns of Gorham and Lancaster for $10,000 and $15,000, respectively, from the county’s Utility Valuation Defense Fund. Established in 2013, the fund was a response by Coos County to what has been described as a full-court press by utilities of municipal assessments throughout New Hampshire.

Earlier this month, the city of Berlin was the first Coos County community to get money from the fund. Berlin is in an assessment dispute with Great Lakes Hydro America, the owner of three hydroelectric dams on the Androscoggin River.

The city has assessed the dams cumulatively at $33.6 million, whereas the company, in appeals heard in April by the New Hampshire Board of Tax and Land Appeals, said they should be assessed at $14 million.

If Great Lakes Hydro prevails, the taxpayers of Berlin might see their bills spike by as much as $1.75 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to absorb the annual loss of between $600,000 and $700,000, City Manager Jim Wheeler has said. The city’s 2013 tax rate was $33 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Currently, both Berlin and Gorham are awaiting BTLA decisions. Gorham, which has two Great Lakes hydros in its community, is also awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court on its appeal of a BTLA decision that held that the Portland-Montreal oil pipeline is worth significantly less than the town’s assessment.

Wheeler said he thinks utility companies are taking on cash-strapped communities because they believe the communities will settle rather than fight.

On Thursday, Coos Commission Chairman Tom Brady echoed Wheeler’s sentiments.

“This is a very large issue and what’s happened and what appears to be happening is different utilities are trying to pick off small towns one at a time,” said Brady. “When they do, they will significantly impact taxpayers in Coos County and it’s very important for Coos County to support every town.”

County Administrator Jennifer Fish said letters to county communities informing them about the utility-valuation defense fund “just went out,” adding that no additional communities have requested assistance.

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