By: Tom Duggan – September, 2013
Gracemarie and Joyce Tomaselli say they are days away from losing their property in Salisbury because town officials have retaliated against them because they blew the lid on what they call, “the $80 Million lie.”
Dubbed the Sleuth Sisters, Joyce and Gracemarie have been investigating a sewer betterment after they realized that the taxpayers of Salisbury Beach were being billed for a sewer project that had already been paid for with state and federal grants.
“Salisbury was polluting the waters and the government ordered under of the Clean Water Act that because many coastal communities were polluting the water the state issued an order for them to stop doing that,” Grace Joyce Tomaselli told The Valley Patriot.
“So, they would fine Salisbury with a $10,000 a day fine for polluting water. Because of this, Salisbury had to rip up the old sewer lines at the beach and put in new sewer lines up to the new Elm Street Sewer Plant where they were processing the wastewater. They had to redirect the sewage so that it went to that area. They needed to put in new sewer lines to redirect that water.”
The Tomaselli sisters say that the local cost of the sewer project was forced onto the taxpayers of Salisbury Beach, but “what we found out after a very long process and many court battles, is that this sewer project was 100% completely grant-funded by the state and federal government.
The Mangia Restaurant
“The Town voted to construct the sewer project in May of 1982. The law says that they have to record the vote of the order, plan and estimate of the project cost at the Regristry of Deeds, so that new property owners would know an assessment was pending and they would be incurring a prior debt on the property for a sewer betterment,” Gracemarie said the town did not do this so there is no lien for the properties.
“In 1990 we were looking for a restaurant to buy, and at one point we were looking in Newburyport. I was looking at Agabe on State Street. We were actually going to buy that, but then we saw this other place in Salisbury and decided to buy it so we could live upstairs. People know us in Salisbury, so we decided to buy here. What a mistake that was.”
Before starting their own restaurant in Salisbury, Gracemarie Tomaselli was a social worker for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, shortly thereafter she became a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Policy and Systems Assistance Trainer. She says she left her job so she and her sister could open a restaurant in Salisbury.
Joyce Tomaselli was a senior social worker with the Commonwealth prior to buying property in Salisbury to start their own restaurant business.
The business they started back in 1991 was Mangia Café Restaurant, at 105 North End Blvd. (photo at right)
SUCCESSFUL RESTAURANT, MYSTERIOUS WATER/SEWER BILLS
“We finally got the Restaurant open after a year and a half of the town running us around to satisfy their whims, bring it to code and make everybody happy. They really pushed us around here. They had us putting in steel doors in wooden frames, it was awful. But, we wanted to open and they had us where they wanted us, so we just kept paying to get the restaurant open. Finally, September 12, 1992, we got our permits to open after losing two summer seasons trying to deal with the town.”
“But, what could we do? We complied, we paid our bills while they bled us dry, but we thought we were out of the woods when we opened our doors. We had no idea what the town had in store for us.”
When Mangia Café Restaurant was finally opened at Salisbury Beach it was met with wide acclaim. The sisters got awards and write ups in Fine Dining magazines, AAA gave them top recommendations and Date Line even interviewed the sisters about their gourmet home cooking.
Initially, records show that the Tomaselli’s never received the original sewer betterment bill. “The bill went to the prior owners for $15,000 for a sewer project, but we never saw it.
“If you don’t pay your sewer betterment bill in 30 days it shows up on your tax bill and is pro-rated for 20 years plus interest. That’s when I first saw this outrageous charge on my tax bill. I had no idea what it was.” Joyce says.
“When they sent these bills out,” Gracemarie said interrupting, “I don’t think anyone knew that they were charging for a sewer betterment. One year’s sewer-user bill was over $4,000 instead of $601.00. ”
“At one point we had over $30,000 in sewer bills at 14% interest, for a 28 seat restaurant in Salisbury,” Gracemarie added with disgust in her voice.
“We were paying our bills. We paid, and paid, and paid. We didn’t know that at the time we were supposed to be charged for our sewer user bill based on our water consumption in the restaurant. We just got a bill and paid it just like most people, and I think that is what they were counting on. At one point they were charging us $3,000-4,000 a year,” Joyce recounts.
The sisters say that they should have been paying hundreds of dollars in sewer bills to the Town of Salisbury instead of thousands.
“Nobody said we could file for an abatement. We didn’t know, we just paid. Finally, I called the town and I said ‘what is this sewer charge on my tax bill and why is it so much?’ We just thought the bills were high.”
“She said, “everyone is complaining about it, what are you trying to do, get out of paying for it?”
“We weren’t trying to get out of anything, I just wanted to know what it was. We had no idea how big this was, it was just a sewer bill, we figured it was a mistake and eventually we would be getting money back. Then the lady at town hall said we would be getting more bills for the next 20 years.”
Over a period of two years the sisters tried to get answers on their sewer bill and why they were being charged so much.
“Mangia had two really great summers,” Gracemarie says. “But on Dec 30, 1994 I called the tax collector to arrange picking up our licenses for the upcoming 1995 season. That’s when we realized something was really wrong with what was going on here. The tax collector told me, he said, “I am not giving you any of your licenses unless you come up with $19,000 in back taxes by today at 1pm.’”
“We didn’t have $19,000. And we never got a notice that we had to come up with $19,000 to get our licenses, now he is telling us we have just hours to get the money or we can’t open our restaurant for the 1995 season.”
“We even went to the town’s liquor commission to get licenses approved and we sat through those meetings, nobody ever said we had a huge bill to pay first, it never came up. We went through the whole process.”
“That’s when we started to do our own research,” Gracemarie says, “because we had a successful restaurant with gourmet home-made food, AAA reservations booked in advance for a whole year, reservations and gift certificates to refund, and then we had to go to the restaurant and stand there and turn people away at our door.”
The sisters say that before buying the property their attorney had researched the title at the Regristry of Deeds.
“If we had seen that there was a $15,000 sewer betterment-bill coming our way because of this sewer project, we wouldn’t have bought the property in Salisbury. But the town never recorded the vote of the order to constuct the sewer with the Registry in 1982, so anyone buying property in Salisbury had no idea they were buying into this fake betterment charge.”
A Fake Betterment Charge
for a Grant Funded Sewer Project
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the total cost of the Salisbury Beach sewer project was $18,023,478. Through federal and state grants from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the Federal EPA 90% of the project was paid for.
That leaves a balance on the project of approximately $1.9 million which would normally be passed on to the taxpayers as their “local share.”
“What we found out, and it’s right here in the government documents,” Joyce said, “is that the USDA paid $1,974,800, to cover local share, so there was no charge to the taxpayers of Salisbury Beach. But, nobody knew. Nobody knew. The town officials didn’t tell anyone. And then when we started asking questions they began the process of taking away our property.”
“We took them to court over and over and they just showed up and lied. They never provided any documentation before any judge to prove exactly how much this project really cost and how much was getting paid by grants. They came up with this number of $80 million to justify charging the taxpayers and they got away with it.”
The Tomaselli sisters said that when they initially filed a court case at the appellate tax board the town immediately filed against them in land court to take away their property.
“They told us that if we dropped the appellate tax board case, they would drop the case against us to take our property in land court. I asked if they woudl put that in writing and they refused. That was when they came up with the $80 Million story.”
“We were stuck, it was heartbreaking, but at that point we knew this was not right and we were going to get to the bottom of everything. We knew were were going to win. We had already lost our restaurant. We had no way of earning the money to pay the tax bill, which wasn’t really a tax bill it was a sewer bill tacked on a tax bill.”
The Tomaselli sisters say that even though they have the proof from the EPA, USDA and the Mass DEP that the town lied about the cost of the sewer project, and the local share passed on to the taxpayers at Salisbury Beach, the town is taking their property on North End Boulevard on September 30, 2013.
“We are losing our property,” Gracemarie said with a tear in her eye.
“The town has gotten away with lying to the land court, the appellate tax board, the appeals court, the federal court, the court of appeals, and even the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. And it’s a shame. All of it, the missing documents, a fake betterment, an incompetent court system and town taxpayers who just rolled over and took it. The taxpayers were sold an $80 Million lie and the courts gave it credibility by never once requiring documentation on the real cost of the project.”
The sisters say that Secretary of State Bill Galvin has asked for copies of documents showing the real cost of the sewer project and the town cannot produce them.
“They can’t produce them because they know what they did. They know. And we are just hoping that the Secretary of State won’t take them at their word and demand proof of everything they say.”
“Not that it will matter to us,” Joyce added. “We are losing our property, we have lost our restaurant, we have lost everything. But at least people will know the truth. That project was paid for with grant money, the town had no business billing the taxpayers for it, and what they did with all that extra money… who knows?”
Next month Part II: How did an $18 million sewer project become $80 million with no paperwork.