Manchester alderman in hot water after tax talk

CHRIS HERBERT

MANCHESTER — Alderman Chris Herbert complained Wednesday that remarks he made about the tax burdens on the elderly had been “intentionally misinterpreted” by a political foe.

Herbert’s remarks have drawn widespread ire in social media circles after he said he doesn’t favor a tax credit to help elderly homeowners and thinks the city should implement a program to help an 85-year-old woman move out of her house when she can’t afford the taxes.

“You’re saying give her a tax credit. No. We should have a program that gets her out of the house. I mean we need to get new people to come in and occupy those houses,” Herbert said during a meeting of the Joint Education Committee on May 24.

Mayor Ted Gatsas said City Hall has been inundated with telephone calls, and he passed along Herbert’s telephone number to callers. Gatsas called Herbert’s remarks “absolutely awful.”

“I can’t give you any idea what he’s getting at; it makes no sense,” Gatsas said.

Experts, Gatsas said, have said that the elderly remain healthier when they stay in their homes.

Herbert said his remarks were intentionally misinterpreted by Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur; the two are often at odds.

“Anybody that knows me, knows I’m the last person to throw anybody out of her house,” Herbert said Wednesday.

He told the New Hampshire Union Leader he was sorry for his remarks.

Herbert also acknowledged that the example he gave — an 85-year-old neighbor who lives across the street from him in a $350,000 home she can’t afford — was fictional. A reporter could find no 85-year-old woman who was an immediate neighbor, and the most expensive home in the Watts Street neighborhood was valued at $251,200 last year for tax purposes.

“It was totally fictional ... I was getting hyperbolic and excited,” said Herbert, a one-term alderman and Democratic state representative in his second term. He said he was trying to illustrate a situation, and he has never met someone who has lost a house because of unpaid taxes.

Herbert said the topic came up during a discussion about the Manchester school budget, which is under consideration by aldermen. Herbert favors a budget that exceeds the city tax cap.

Herbert made his remark while responding to concerns, raised by fellow Alderman Barbara Shaw, about the impact that higher taxes would have on the elderly.

He said a lot of elderly get stuck in a house they bought decades ago. The tax value has increased, and they have higher tax bills, but little money to pay for it. Meanwhile, all their wealth is tied up in the house.

“We have a pretty harsh situation. If you fall too far behind (in tax bills), there’s a lien, and an auction. It’s not a good situation,” he said.

Levasseur said he hasn’t said much about Herbert’s remarks. He merely posted a video of Herbert making his remarks.

“A tape is a tape. I never even made a comment about him,” Levasseur said. “I don’t dislike the guy; he is what he is.”

According to the chief city assessor, the city took 16 city tax deeds this year. Tax deeds give the city possession of property because of unpaid taxes.

Assessor Robert Gagne said 768 elderly people lowered their tax bills last year by taking advantage of exemptions. City tax exemptions range from $109,500 to $195,500, and they are limited based on income.

The elderly exemptions cost the city about $2.5 million in lost city revenue. The city also has a tax deferral program, which allows homeowners to borrow against their home equity to pay their taxes. Ten qualified for tax deferrals last year.

Gagne said the city has no programs, as Herbert suggested, to get elderly out of their homes.

“The way the statutes are designed is to facilitate them staying in their homes longer than they would,” Gagne said.

Gagne provided data compiled by Concord city officials. It shows that Manchester ranks the second most generous when it comes to its tax exemptions and credits, behind Nashua.

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