Council approves taking 36 properties for unpaid taxes

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN — The city council Monday night approved taking 36 properties for unpaid taxes dating back to 2014.

The council also approved contracts with Eversource for lighting upgrades at five city buildings.
City Manager James Wheeler presented the council with a list of 40 properties eligible for tax deeding as prepared by Finance Director Patty Chase. He said he and Chase were recommending the council not take four of the properties.
Three of the properties are owned by the estate of Robert Lavoie and include a house at 640 Hillside Avenue and vacant land at Flint and Ramsey Streets. Wheeler said there is concern about environmental issues at the properties and the city would like to see an assessment done before assuming any liability. Wheeler noted the city could tax deeded the properties at a later data.
The other property, at 310 Wight Street, is in the process of being purchased. Wheeler said the city would rather see the property remain in private ownership and noted the sale would require payment of the back taxes.
The council removed the four properties as recommended and approved the tax deed list.
Property owners on the tax deed list still have an opportunity to repurchase their properties. The city will sent out certified letters offering owners an opportunity to repurchase. But to repurchase, the owner must pay all property taxes plus interest and fees. There is also a 15 percent assessment penalty, which can be waived for residential property owners if they have never been tax deeded before, live in the home, and have no code violations.
Under Eversource’s Municipal Smart Start Program, the city will upgrade lighting at the library, fire station, public works building, police recreation and city hall.
Through the Smart Start Program, Eversource offers municipalities an opportunity to reduce electric consumption and costs with no up front costs. In addition to a rebate, Eversource finances the upgrades and allows communities to pay monthly with savings generated by the work.
Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme explained Eversource will replace lighting in the five city buildings to more efficient LED lighting.
Once the cost of the upgrade is repaid, the savings then go to the city.
For example, the cost to upgrade the lighting at the police state/recreation center is just over $25,000. If the city chooses to finance through Eversource, it would repay the utility $14,536 once the rebate is deducted and a program charge is calculated. Eversource estimates the more efficient lighting will save the city $4,130 a year. Using a monthly payment of $338, it would take 43 months to pay off the upgrade. After the project is paid off, Laflamme said the city should see annual savings of just over $24,000.
She said the city could pay the project back over a longer period and use 75 percent of the savings monthly and keep 25 percent. But Mayor Paul Grenier and the council opted to use all the savings to pay the project off sooner.
In other business:
• Councilor Mike Rozek noted the city this year will exceed the $75,000 appropriation for legal services by about 45 percent. He said he would like the city to try and keep that item down in the fiscal 2018 budget. Grenier said the money is being used to protect the city’s interests and said the council need it was going to be over-expended this year. City Manager James Wheeler noted the city had two major issues this year that required significant legal assistance. He said he hopes the high legal costs will not be long-term. Rozek asked if the council could be notified next year when the legal budget gets close to being fully expended so the body could discuss options.
• The council gave Public Works Director Michael Perreault authority to purchase a second-hand sidewalk tractor for $40,800. Perreault said the used tractor is in good shape. He said a new one with attachments would cost the city up to $180,000. He said the city does not have the money in capital funds to purchase a new sidewalk tractor. Rozek requested Perreault have a department mechanic look over the tractor before agreeing to purchase it.
• The council approved an ordinance amendment rezoning north side of Route 110, from Jericho Deli to Head Pond Road, from an industrial/business zone to the Jericho Gateway zone. The Jericho Gateway zone focuses on recreational, residential, and compatible retail uses. Property owners along the section sought the change.
• The council also approved amending the zoning ordinance to comply with new legislation on accessory dwelling units. The new state ordinance takes effect June 1. The city will allow so-called “in-law units” in single-family homes with the restriction that the property owner must live in one of the units. Conditional permits will be required from the planning board.