High court sides with Emera in abatement fight

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The Maine Supreme Court made an unexpectedly swift decision in Emera’s tax abatement battle with Bradley and Eddington, with justices ruling last Thursday in favor of the utility.

A legal fight over the abatment started more that two years ago, with its origins dating back to 2012, when Emera made a mistake calculating its high transmission line mileage in Bradley, Eddington, Holden and Brewer. The utility, which does its own valuations because the complexity and time involved would be beyond the scope of manycommunities, later learned of its error and in 2013 issued corrected valuations that were much lower; town officials were told by an accountant at Emera, however, that no abatement would be sought for 2012.

Emera later changed its tuen, however, and in 2015 requested tax abatements from those communities, including $110,000 from Bradley for its 2012 mistake; Bradley officials, however, balked, stating that Emera had admitted to the error and previously stated it would not seek an abatement. Eddington also denied it and joined forced with Bradley in a court fight, contending the error was Emera’s, not theirs, and the abatement had not been sought within the window allowed by state law.

Emera appealed, and the state Board of Property Tax Appeal Review sided with Emera, saying Bradley had no right to keep the tax money Emera paid mistakenly. That ruling led in turn to a joint appeal to superior court by Bradley and Eddington, which shared attorney costs. A judge denied the appeal, leading to the decision to appeal to the Maine Supreme Court.

The high court hearing was held ljst about a month ago, and while no timeline was expected on when a ruling would be made, it typically is months before justices rule on many cases. In this instance,, however, their decision came with lightning speed by court standards. With the court affirming the decision of the Board of Property Tax Appeal Review.

In its ruling justices said the statute at issue in the appeal, establishes the procedures a property taxpayer can use to seek a tax abatement from a municipality. That statute states that between one and three years after the date of commitment, municipal officers may make a reasonable abatement to correct “any illegality, error or irregularity in assessment,” but they “may not grant an abatement to correct an error in the valuation of property.”

“When the error at issue affects the taxability of the property itself or indicates any impropriety in the manner in which the property was assessed, the error is an ‘illegality, error or irregularity in assessment,’ opined the justices. “It is elementary that no tax can be imposed without express statutory authority. . . and particularly that no double tax burden shall be imposed on any person or property.

“Here, the record supports the Board’s finding that the error made by Emera in including the mileage of…. a line it did not own, on the lists it submitted to the towns for property tax purposes resulted in an illegality, error, or irregularity in assessment…The Board appropriately determined that the towns’ assessment of tax to Emera for (another company’s utility line) was an error in assessment, and not merely in valuation, entitling Emera to an abatement.

Town Manager Melissa Doane said recently that the high court decision would end the case, one way or another, for the town