Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Jeremy Dodge, 53, of East Montpelier, stands outside his home on Foster Road on Tuesday. He inherited the home with 16 acres from his parents, and it was about to be sold for back taxes in September until Gov. Peter Shumlin stepped in and made Dodge an offer he accepted. The property is next to the governor's newly built home. Dodge says he now regrets the agreement he made with the governor.
MONTPELIER — As his July 15 moving date nears, Jeremy Dodge's seller's remorse has begun to intensify.
Back on Nov. 7, when Dodge finalized the sale of his 16-acre homestead in bucolic East Montpelier, he believed the deal he cut with its buyer, Peter Shumlin, was the only way to avoid imminent ouster from the residence his now-deceased parents built 31 years ago.
He'd accumulated more than $17,000 in back taxes since inheriting the property in 2009, and the looming tax sale, Dodge says he believed at the time, would result in his eviction from the property.
So without a lawyer to represent him, Dodge signed a purchase-and-sale agreement in which Shumlin, the second-term Democratic governor of Vermont, acquired the property for $58,000 — less than a quarter of the $233,700 for which the homestead was then appraised.
“I could not afford a lawyer,” Dodge said. “And (Shumlin) said we'd just use his lawyers.”
The sale price included $9,000 representing the value of the rent Shumlin said he was saving Dodge by allowing him to remain in the home from November through July, and a $9,000 “seller repair credit” — money Dodge won't get if he hasn't upgraded the condition of the property by the middle of next month.
“I don't have nothing bad to say about him, but yeah, I got ripped off, plain and simple,” Dodge said Tuesday. “I wish it had turned out differently. I wish that I had let it go to tax auction.”
An East Montpelier town lister has since lowered the appraised value to $140,000, owing to the decrepit condition of the house in which Dodge has lived since before his parents died.
In an emailed statement late Tuesday, Shumlin said the sale price was fair.
“I believe $58,000 was a fair price, and we both agreed to it,” Shumlin said. “The house is in terrible shape; it will have to be knocked down or totally gutted.”
As for Dodge's lack of counsel, Shumlin said he urged him last year to remedy that.
“He didn't have a lawyer on this sale,” Shumlin said. “But I did recommend it.”
But the 53-year-old Dodge, a parolee with a criminal rap sheet that includes convictions for drugs and domestic assault, says that if he knew last year what he knows now, he would have been able to avoid losing the house, or at least sold it more profitably.
Dodge said he'd always been confident the property would fetch at auction more than what Shumlin offered in advance of the tax sale. But he says he believed he'd be forced out of the residence once it sold.
“From how I understood it that once it went to tax auction, I would have to move out and wouldn't have no money to move with,” Dodge said. “I found out later that that's not true, that if it went to tax auction, I would have been able to stay there for a year to pay off the taxes.”
Municipalities resort to tax sales as a means of recovering outstanding tax bills on properties. In a tax sale, the landowner's tax liability is assumed by the highest bidder, who in turn receives the deed on the property. The original landowner has one year to void the deed by paying off the tax debt, plus interest, to the winning bidder.
Shumlin said Dodge's regret over the deal is sudden and disappointing, and that if Dodge was mistaken about the scope of options before him, then it wasn't evident at the time.
“What I can tell you is that, regardless of what he may say now about his ability to review this agreement, we talked about the terms of this agreement together, and I was under the impression the entire time that he knew exactly what he was getting from the purchase — cash in hand, a place to continue to live for many months, and cash when he would get a new place,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin and Dodge first crossed paths in the summer of 2012, after Shumlin purchased a 32-acre parcel next to Dodge's land. That land deal became the subject of intense media scrutiny when municipal records revealed he had purchased for $35,000 a parcel that was later valued by town listers at $147,000. The governor has since constructed a 2,200-square-foot home on that lot, a property in which he now resides.
Dodge said it was him who approached Shumlin about a possible deal to avoid the tax sale.
“And he said he really didn't want to get involved in buying more property, but that he would help me out,” Dodge said. “So he wrote out a contract type of thing … and he paid my back taxes off, paid my child support, and gave me two grand on top of that, and then when I move out in July of this year, I'll be getting $15,000 more.”
Shumlin said he viewed the transaction as a win-win for him and Dodge.
“He had been behind on taxes and other bills for some time at this property; he didn't have a way to stay in his place, which lacked heat, power, and water when I agreed to buy it, and couldn't continue to serve as his home,” Shumlin said. “I believed this purchase agreement would give him the resources and time to find another place to live.”
The terms of the deal changed over the course of the six-week period between the scheduled tax sale and the date on which the men closed on the deal.
Shumlin's handwritten first offer, scrawled on the front of a manila envelope, stipulates a sale price of $32,000 “total being paid.” The offer includes $17,494 in back taxes, $3,735 to cover delinquent child support payments, $1,766 in cash to Dodge, and an additional $9,000 upon his departure from the home “no later than July 15, 2013.”
Shumlin also agreed to pay the property taxes for the remainder of Dodge's time in the property and not to charge him rent during the intervening months.
The final purchase-and-sale agreement, a copy of which the Vermont Press Bureau was unable to obtain by deadline Tuesday, stipulates a $58,000 sale price, according to Shumlin. The price includes $9,000 for “prepaid occupancy” for Dodge's stay through July 15 and the $9,000 “holdback” that Dodge won't receive unless he's completed unspecified repairs on the 964-square-foot single-level stick frame home.
Shumlin ran the transaction through the same limited liability company — Foster Road LLC — that he used to buy the 32-acre parcel earlier that year. Shumlin, in addition to co-owning Putney Student Travel, is an accomplished real estate developer with ownership stakes in at least five LLCs. Income from rental properties accounted for two-thirds of the $950,000 he reported in personal income on his tax returns in 2009.
Bernie Corliss, a longtime friend of Dodge's, spent summers working in the fields on Dodge's father's old dairy farm. Corliss said he initially “thought the governor was doing a good thing” when he agreed to purchase the land from Dodge last year.
As he learned more about the particulars, Corliss said Monday in the living room of his home at the Weston Mobile Home Park in Berlin, he began to doubt the soundness of the deal.
“My main concern is that (Dodge) didn't have anyone representing his interests,” Corliss said.
Corliss said he doubts Dodge has the cognitive skills to advocate for himself effectively, or even understand the basic elements of the deal.
“Jeremy's not all there,” Corliss said Monday. “If you walk up to him, shake his hand, he seems all right. But if you spend any time with him …”
Dodge said he dropped out of U-32 High School after ninth grade.
“They told me I could either walk out or they would remove me,” Dodge said.
Dodge says financial limitations prevented him from hiring a lawyer. He says he negotiated the land deal independently with Shumlin and didn't have in-person contact with any attorneys until he sat down with Shumlin's lawyer, Gloria Rice, at the Nov. 7 closing.
Dodge said the first suggestion he secure counsel came from Rice, on the day he sat down with her to finalize closing, a closing that proceeded, Dodge said, after he explained he was unable to afford one. Dodge works 32 hours a week at the Salvation Army.
Rice is out of the country until next week, according to a receptionist at her law office.
Dodge said Shumlin came knocking late last week to ask about whether he'd been speaking recently with reporters. Shumlin said he had to visit his soon-to-depart neighbor anyway to see if the Roto-Rooter he sent over “succeed(ed) in clearing out the pipes.”
“Second, I had heard rumors that he or his friends or family members were suddenly not happy with the sale, and so I asked him if it was true, since he had never expressed anything like that to me,” Shumlin said. “He told me that reporters had shown up at his house and wanted to interview him about the real estate purchase. He told me that, while he expressed appreciation for everything that I had done for him, he was no longer happy with the arrangement, and he had told the reporters that.”
Shumlin said he found the exchange “upsetting.”
“Jerry's a neighbor who has had his share of difficulty, as you know,” Shumlin said.
Dodge said he's having a difficult time securing new housing, a challenge he attributes to an 8-year-old pit bull-Rottweiler mix named Coda. He also has a 9-year-old Lab mix named Sasha.
“They're my family,” Dodge said. “They're all I've had the past two years.”
Dodge says he hopes to find a spot near downtown Barre, closer to his job and the twice-weekly Intensive Domestic Abuse Program classes that are part of the conditions of his release after a 2011 conviction for domestic assault.
He said, however, that he'll miss summers especially in his home, where he can see from his backyard the old farmhouse in which he grew up.
Said Dodge, “It is beautiful here.”
Staff writer Stefan Hard contributed to this report.
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