CONWAY — At Tuesday's selectmen's meeting, Town Finance Director Lilli Gilligan held aloft a $12,176 check from Carroll County just before the selectmen voted to accept it.
She had been pursuing the PILOT ("Payment In Lieu Of Taxes") money "in earnest" since 2016 but had started her effort in 2014. Carroll County Commissioners approved the money to be sent to Conway May 8.
The issue concerned the fact that Carroll County had been receiving payments in lieu of taxes from the U.S. Department of Interior for land in the White Mountain National Forest that should have been going to Conway and Hale's Location instead of the county.
Conway has about 366 acres of National Forest Land.
The $12,176 represented payments made between 1999 and 2016.
Selectmen on Tuesday held a public hearing before accepting the money because it was unanticipated revenue over $10,000.
"We finally got the money back, and we got it corrected," said Chairman David Weathers.
Municipal Budget Committee Chairman Jim LeFebvre, who was seated in the audience, asked selectmen to provide some background about the situation.
According to Gilligan, in 2014 a representative from the Department of Revenue Administration "insisted" the town would be getting about $1,000 for the forest land.
Gilligan, who was new to Conway government at the time, said she didn't think the town ever received such a payment.
"Every year for three straight years I was told I would get it, and then I never got it," said Gilligan. "So, I started doing a lot more digging."
She started working with then county commissioner Mark Hounsell of Conway, who found a contact person at the Department of Interior who was able to determine how much the county was paid.
Gilligan noted that the payment Carroll County received for Conway was also "blended" with money meant for Hale's.
But the DRA had to verify with Interior that Conway had 366 acres of forest land.
In July 2018, the selectmen sent the commissioners a letter seeking the money and then Weathers, Gilligan and Town Manager Tom Holmes went to a commissioners meeting in Ossipee in November to follow up.
At that point, said Gilligan, with support from Hounsell the commissioners put the money in their 2019 proposed budget and the Carroll County delegation, which is made up of 15 local state representatives and ultimately approves county budgets, went along with the commissioners.
Gilligan said during the budget process state Rep. Tom Buco (D-Conway) "was extremely helpful as a county delegation member in making sure that money stayed in the budget, and then thank goodness we got another Conway person in the county commissioners office, because Terry McCarthy was successful in getting another commissioners' vote and voted that money to be returned to Conway a month ago."
McCarthy had defeated Hounsell in the 2018 Republican Primary and went on to win the general election in November 2018.
Gilligan said the check came in about two weeks ago but because it had to be accepted after a public hearing.
"I deeply appreciate everybody that helped in that process," said Gilligan.
Weathers thanked Gilligan for her diligence.
Selectmen unanimously accepted the $12,176.
LeFebvre thanked the town staff for their work on the issue. "Any time you can get $12,000 out of the county that has been erroneously been kept by the county, we appreciate it," said LeFebvre.
The money will be used to offset taxes.
The process was also delayed by the government shutdown last winter as the commissioners attempted to get information from Interior but couldn't reach anyone.
Commissioners on May 8 voted 2-1 to send the money to Conway, with David Babson (R-Conway) and Terry McCarthy (R-Conway) in the majority and Amanda Bevard (R-Wolfeboro) opposed.
"This has just gone around and around and around on whose fault it is," said Babson in making a motion to give Conway the money. "Let's get it over with."
McCarthy said she was "getting a lot of heat" on the issue. At the close of the conversation, she mulled whether she wanted to reconsider the vote as she was "torn"on the issue. Ultimately she didn't.
"I like being on the winning side once in a while," said Babson.
Bevard objected to making the payment.
"The money does not belong to you or I to just give away," said Bevard. "It belongs to 40,000 people in the county and I am sure if I give money away to Conway I'm going to hear from the people in Moultonborough, Wolfeboro and Wakefield and Eaton and Hart's Location."
Treasurer Joe Costello, who lives in Conway, said he's been hearing from people about the issue too.
"I understand what both sides are saying," said Costello, adding the federal government is usually unwilling to admit error. "I'm not going to tell the commissioners what to do, but my opinion is it does look to me like we should be giving it to Conway."
County Administrator Ken Robichaud said Interior's website says it normally sends the money to counties.
After the vote, Bevard stressed she believed the commissioners were taking an illegal action.
Babson suggested Bevard take them to court, and Bevard replied that the rest of the county would.
Hounsell, reached by phone May 8, believes that Carroll County owes Hale’s Location $40,000 in similar payments.
Reached by phone in May, Robichaud said the payments to the county say for Carroll County and there's nothing in the documentation stating money should be distributed to Hale's Location.