The big buzz: Taxes

By Laura A. Kiernan, 12/14/99


Voters here don't seem too worked up about whether George W. Bush knows his world leaders or whether Vice President Al Gore is an alpha or beta kind of guy. The hot rumor around town is whether a homeowner keeled over and died after the tax bills were sent - everybody's is up 42 percent this year, thanks to a new statewide education property tax. And the money is due Friday.

Campaign 2000:Letter from N.H.

This vacation enclave, nestled by a northern corner of Lake Winnipesaukee, is in a state of high anxiety. Not only have tax bills shot up, but the town will put more money into the state's new education fund - to be spread around to ''poorer'' towns - than any other place in New Hampshire. The state, under court pressure, says its goal is fairness, but critics - and there are plenty of them - call it an out-of-whack Robin Hood scheme.

''This thing has really shaken up everybody in this area,'' said Lee Huston, who owns the Chick-A-Dee Station, a shop for bird lovers. ''I'm almost talked out on taxes. I keep my mouth shut when they come in the door.''

While the political junkies watched the GOP forum in Manchester the other night, 250 people were trying to cram into the selectmen's meeting, some angry, all anxious about paying their property tax bills. The same complaints are heard in Portsmouth, New London, and Rye, all symbols of picture-book New Hampshire, all full of high-priced property ripe for taxation.

''Thanks for ruining our Christmas,'' said one of many letters to town hall here from upset taxpayers.

''You should be ashamed of yourself,'' said another.

Tax collector Susette Remson is understanding. ''They have to vent,'' she said.

True, some big checks come in without a word. But there are townspeople who protest that they are not rich.

However, when the state measures wealth not by what you earn but by the value of the property you own, Moultonborough, for example, comes out very rich indeed. This place is a lakeside jewel, valued at $1 billion, with 65 miles of coveted shorefront, winding and curling through coves and bays, dotted by house after house.

Year-round the population is only 3,200 people, but in summer, when all the second-home owners (they account for at least 50 percent of the property) and visitors arrive, it swells to 40,000.

Towns with high-priced property and relatively small student populations must share their tax wealth, which results in a tax break, albeit modest, for about 80 percent of all the other places in the state. Moultonborough - blessed with location, location, location and just 700 or so school kids - is New Hampshire's No. 1 donor town. The state will have an additional $24 million from the education property tax to pass around, $4 million will come from Moultonborough alone.

So Topic A over the turkey stew at The Village Kitchen is likely to be whether the selectmen should hoard the statewide property tax money until the town can decide on a battle plan - including a lawsuit. Owner Bob Jones says he used to love yakking with customers about politics during presidential primary season, but he says that's not the major buzz this season.

''Everyone is talking about taxes,'' Jones said. ''They're outraged.''

Why should Moultonborough, which has no street lights, no garbage collection, no sidewalks, and no town water or sewers, send money to Amherst, an upscale town near the Massachusetts border?

Retired Connecticut executive Gordon Proctor, one of the most outspoken lakefront property owners, vents his frustration in the newspapers and on the Internet.

After 30 years of summers here, Proctor and his wife Ellen decided to turn an old log cabin on outer Green's Basin into their year-round retirement home. Now Proctor says they just might move. ''As much as we love the place, to hell with it,'' he said. Since they made ''a life decision'' to retire here, Proctor said, ''the rules have been changed.''

But it would be awfully hard to leave. ''That's a red-breasted nuthatch,'' Proctor said when a vistor asked about a delicate bird nibbling at suet on the deck. That morning, Ellen Proctor watched three otters play on a film of ice.

It was a tranquil scene. It made you think about the other big topic in town. Where's the snow?

L aura A. Kiernan is a writer who covers politics.