‘An Error in Judgment’: Claremont Returns Items Taken From Seized Home
Roy Hunter of Claremont, N.H., goes through some of his possessions at his former property on July 8, 2014. Under the direction of Claremont finance director Mary Walter, workers removed some of Hunter's belongings but returned them the same day at the property on June 23. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Roy Hunter of Claremont, N.H., stands in front of his former home in Claremont, N.H., on July 8, 2014. Hunter had been evicted for unpaid taxes but was allowed on the property to remove possessions. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Claremont — Police Chief Alex Scott is reviewing claims that city employees improperly removed items from a Route 12A home that was seized by the city because of more than $70,000 in unpaid taxes.
The house at 54 Windsor Road, a historic structure built in the late 1700s, was “tax deeded” by the city last August. The owner, Roy Hunter, was given several months’ notice to remove his possessions.
His latest deadline to vacate the premises was June 16. A week later, public works employees under the direction of Finance Director Mary Walter went to the home, photographed and inventoried items, then removed them the next day, taking them to the city’s salt shed on North Street.
Soon after, however, city officials reversed course. The items were returned to him the next day, and Hunter was given an additional 30 days to clear out.
“Mary wanted to protect the city’s assets,” said City Manager Guy Santagate. “But it was an error in judgment, and we will do it differently next time. We can do better.”
Hunter contends the city overstepped its authority by removing his personal property and said he was never served officials papers ordering him to vacate the property.
“She (Walter) did not have the right to take my personal stuff,” he said. “I was never given a proper eviction notice.”
Hunter said he was a self-employed carpenter, but a fourth back operation in 2008 combined with downturn in the economy left him unable to find work or pay his taxes.
Among the items removed were a secretary’s desk, bureaus, coins, jewelry and pictures. Though most of it was returned, Hunter said there are several things he can’t locate.
“They brought it back but it is in disarray,” said Hunter, who is going through everything. “They dumped stuff from the desk in bags and it is all mixed together.”
Some antique photos of his house, two antique American flags and some silver coins are among the items he said are still missing.
Walter categorically denied that the city kept or lost any of Hunter’s possessions.
“All the stuff was returned,” she said. “Nothing was taken.”
Santagate also said allegations that items were stolen were baseless.
On June 25, Hunter was given a seven-day eviction notice. His attorney said he was able to get an extension to 30 days.
Scott said he and the city attorney, Jane Taylor, were uncomfortable with the city’s action, even though Hunter was given several months to remove his property, and so they intervened and had the items returned to Hunter.
“We were not confident where we stood procedurally, so we ended that,” Scott said.
Scott said when a property is taken by a municipality because of unpaid property taxes, an “end date” is established for the premises to be vacated. In this case, he said, there apparently was a miscommunication as to when that date would be.
“The end process is going to be a little more formal now,” Scott said.
Scott said Hunter has been very cooperative and that city officials have “bent over backwards” to allow him enough time to clean out his possessions.
Scott said he has reviewed his procedures with the state’s Attorney General’s Office and Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway.
“Both are comfortable where we are,” Scott said.
State Rep. Joe Osgood, R-Claremont, who contacted the Attorney General’s Office about the issue, said Tuesday he was disappointed when told by the AG’s Office it would not get involved.
“They decided that without even talking to Roy Hunter,” Osgood said. “The city has no right to take his personal property. That is what the sheriff does. A tax deed is for land and buildings only. They seized his property without a warrant.”
Osgood said despite giving Hunter several months to vacate the premises, the city should have gone to court and let a judge decide whether Hunter should have more time.
While the city took ownership of the property last August, Taylor said Hunter was not forced out at that time so he would have time to find a place to live. In March, the city ordered him to move out because the municipal code enforcement officer said the home was unsound structurally and was “unfit for habitation.”
“When it is a city-owned property, the city is responsible,” Taylor said.
On April 6, Taylor said, Hunter signed an agreement that would hold the city harmless if he were injured on the property. That agreement granted him access to the home through May 1 to remove his property.
“He kept extending it and extending it,” Taylor said. “He asked for more time because he had not gotten everything out.”
On May 1, Taylor said Hunter was given another extension until June 16.
“We were trying to work with him to get his personal property off the premises,” Taylor said.
On June 24, Walter went to the house with public works employees and began removing items and storing them in the city’s salt shed on North Street. Walter said Tuesday it was her understanding at the time that sufficient notice had been given to Hunter and the city’s actions were justified.
“Whatever we could do to clean up that property and recover some money would be wonderful,” Walter said. “As it is now, I will probably have to write off about $70,000, and that is picked up by other taxpayers.”
Both Walter and Santagate said the city needs a better protocol for tax deeded properties. Neither official could recall a similar set of circumstances in their lengthy tenures with the city.
“There has been no process in place,” Walter said. “Whose job is it? Seems when locks need to be changed or anything else, it turns to me.”
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claremont city officials inventoried and photographed personal property at 54 Windsor Road on June 23, then removed it on June 24 before returning it to former homeowner Roy Hunter on June 25. The address of the house and the timeline were incorrect in an earlier version of this story.