AYER — Ralph McNiff wants his farm back. But to get the property’s title from the selectmen, he’ll need to pay $30,000 in back taxes.
And his time is running short.
“Yes, I intend to pay them before time runs out,” said McNiff said. McNiff commented about the closed-door deal struck he struck with the selectmen via a May 4 memorandum that will permit him to take title back to his five-acre farm at 66 Westford Road if he pays up nearly $30,000 in property taxes owed by 5 p.m. on June 30. If he doesn’t, he will face eviction.
By the deadline, McNiff will owe a total of $29,336.07. The number could be slightly smaller if he pays sooner. For every day that passes without paying, $9.47 in interest is added to his bill.
The selectmen negotiated with McNiff in a special meeting on Tuesday, April 27, the day after annual town elections. They agreed to give McNiff 60 days to pay up or get out. While the selectmen held the authority to evict McNiff after the town was awarded title in Land Court in February, they had voiced a desire to show compassion. So they struck a new two-page deal to give the 68-year-old farmer some added time to settle his debts.
According to the minutes from the April 27 meeting, McNiff explained health issues and a recent hospitalization had impacted his ability to pay off his taxes by refinancing the property. The selectmen voiced concerns over the town’s liability in having McNiff remain on site along with his personal property, including his animals.
Interim Town Administrator Jeff Ritter advised the selectmen the town’s blanket insurance policy covered the town for claims regarding the real property only. McNiff was advised that liability issues will be his responsibility and that he’s to notify the town in the event any kind of claim arises during his ongoing occupancy of the property. The agreement put that understanding in writing.
Former Treasurer Denis Callahan and his successor, Stephanie Gintner, were on hand with the related paperwork.
Callahan said the taxes dated back to August 2008: The total owed tallied $20,092, while amount plus interest keeps ticking away. For fiscal year 2009, an added $4,351 was due. For fiscal year 2010, there is an added $3,627. In all, the $30,000 figure loomed large for the board and McNiff.
Callahan noted McNiff’s property entered tax title before, in 1996, and McNiff had been making payments toward that debt up until about two years ago, which explains why he and his predecessor Treasurer permitted McNiff to remain on the title to the property before heading down the foreclosure route.
Selectman Frank Maxant clarified the tax law permits McNiff to pay off the full amount owed within a year of a property’s seizure taking and to reinstate his ownership of the land. But the issue, in the interim, was whether or not McNiff and his animals should remain living on the land.
“The agreement was we would not commence eviction proceeds against him if he repaid the money by that date,” Maxant said. “If he does not pay, we could throw him and all his personal property off. That’s the context in which that agreement was arrived at. State law lets him buy back the farm. It permits a property owner to buy back a property within a year. Whether it’s a farm or a home, you have the right to buy back the property within a year.”
While Maxant and McNiff are friends dating back to their days at Ayer High School, Maxant agreed the town did the right thing in proceeding to obtain tax title against the farm. “Yes, it’s the town’s responsibility to take it for whatever taxes are due. It happens to be the last step available to it,” he said.
Ultimately, Maxant hopes the farm remains in operation. “By all means, it’s important to our entire world to keep that,” he said. “If a developer were to put houses there, that would be the worst thing that could happen.”
On the selectmen’s decision to meet with McNiff to strike a deal, Maxant was happy. “It has to do with what (Ayer Town Clerk and Tax Collector) John Canney said in his election. Town government should act with some compassion,” Maxant said. “The town is here to serve. It isn’t here just to be a business without any other consideration.”
“We should not be in the business of hard-heartedly forcing people out of their homes,” Maxant said.
At the close of business on Tuesday, June 15, Treasurer Stephanie Gintner said that no payments had been received yet from McNiff regarding the new back taxes deal.