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Tax Dispute Could Force Closure of NEK Animal Refuge

Charlotte Albright
A llama peers out of its stall at the Elizabeth Brown Humane Society in Victory. A tax dispute could lead to the closure of the facility for rescued animals.

A non-profit animal shelter in the Northeast Kingdom town of Victory is facing closure because the town has decided to remove its tax exemption.  The rancorous dispute raises questions about who has the authority to grant tax exemptions, and for what reasons.

The Elizabeth Brown Humane Society houses about fifty animals in a large red barn it owns deep in a sparsely inhabited part of the Northeast Kingdom. Most are farm animals that have been rescued from abuse.

On a frigid morning, Director Pat Mitchell arrives at the barn from her house just up the hill to greet a llama, two donkeys and two miniature horses. The tiny, plump horses have been rescued from an owner who could no longer care for them because of her failing health. There are also chickens, rabbits and horses to feed.

Mitchell is pleased to see that the hay box had already been filled.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
The Elizabeth Brown Humane Society in Victory houses about 50 animals rescued from abuse. It is at the center of a tax dispute between the society's director and the town.

"Oh, they already put my hay in … the stinkers, my grandkids,” she chuckles.

Mitchell’s grandchildren live with their parents in a house right next to the barn. They pay rent to the Humane Society. Today, with school cancelled, they are lending their grandmother a hand. But usually Pat Mitchell handles the work alone.

And that’s in part why she’s in a tangle with the town. The town listers have determined that Mitchell’s son, who holds a full-time job in Barre, is not a regular caretaker for the animals, and therefore the house he rents from the society should be taxable. Only the barn itself, with some land, the listers argue, should be tax-exempt.

Mitchell says the entire property is owned by the society, and should be fully tax-exempt. And she says her son should be considered, along with her, a caretaker. Under state law, that would make his home a part of the Humane Society’s facility.  Mitchell says she couldn’t operate the shelter down the hill without some help from her son’s family, who mow and plow the land around the barn.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
This home on land owned by the tax-exempt Elizabeth Brown Humane Society has been deemed taxable by the town of Victory.

“They get the hay into my hay room for me. Some days, my grandson will come and clean the horses out — whatever I need, they’ll do.”

But town officials on Victory’s Board of Civil Authority inspected Mitchell’s son’s house and found no equipment needed for animal care, except a rabbit cage. So they have ruled that the tax exemption should no longer include that rental property.   

Mitchell insists they are wrong, and says the society cannot afford the roughly $3,000 a year in new taxes.

“It will close it, and it will leave 53 animals with an uncertain future, and it will also leave every animal that is abused in Caledonia and Essex County without a group to go in and investigate,” she says.

Neither the tax listers nor select board members are willing to comment publicly on the battle, but the town’s attorney, Dan Richardson, notes that only about 70 people live in Victory, and most of the land is a non-taxable state preserve. Education costs are rising, and newly elected officials are scrutinizing every tax exemption under state law.

“The town chose to interpret it narrowly. And if you look at the decision, they have legal support for that position,” Richardson says.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
The Victory town office used to be a one-room schoolhouse. Rising costs, including education, are prompting a review of tax exemptions.

Richardson cites legal precedent for taxing a portion of a non-profit’s property that does not directly serve its mission. But he also admits that state law does not always apply perfectly to cases like the Elizabeth Brown Humane Society, where one person, with occasional family help, cares for abused farm animals that would otherwise have no place to go. Mitchell is appealing the latest ruling to the Essex County Superior Court, so a costly legal battle continues. But Mitchell says if she must pay this year’s tax bill, she cannot keep the animals fed and sheltered for more than a few more months.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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