Friday, July 22, 2011

Gay advocacy group files lawsuit to save group home

A gay advocacy group is suing to block a New Hampshire town from shutting down a group home for people with HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C.

Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders sued Gilsum this month on behalf of AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region to stop the town from taking Cleve Jones Wellness House for not paying property taxes. Five people are living in the home.

GLAD attorney Ben Klein said Tuesday the group home is tax exempt and shouldn't have to pay the taxes.

He said the home failed to file its application for the exemption and that when it finally did, the town refused to approve a late application, though it routinely granted exemptions to nonprofits that file late or not at all.

"It's an egregious violation of constitutional equal treatment," he said.

The town's lawyer, Gary Kinyon, couldn't be reached Tuesday. He did not immediately respond to a voicemail message at his law office.

Klein said GLAD filed its suit in Cheshire County Superior Court seeking immediate relief since the town planned to take the property this week. Last week, the town agreed to take no action to have the deed transferred to the town until the lawsuit is settled.

The group home and town have had legal differences in the past, said Klein.

GLAD sued Gilsum in 2008 after the town put up roadblocks to Cleve Jones Wellness House operating on the site of a former group home for girls removed from their homes by the state due to abuse, neglect or stresses the family could not handle, according to Klein.

The reaction to people with HIV, AIDS and Hepatitis C living in town was based on fears and stereotypes, he said.

"The town imposed conditions on who could live at the house," Klein said.

They settled the case and most of the restrictions were removed, he said.

The new lawsuit claims the town's selectmen are discriminating against the home by refusing to grant its applications for tax exemptions if not filed or filed late. Gilsum always treated as tax exempt property by the other charitable organizations in town, according to the lawsuit.

"For example, the American Legion did not file an application in the years 2004-2009 and the Gilsum Congregational Church did not file an application in the years 2005, 2007, 2008 or 2009. Yet, Gilsum treated their real property as tax exempt. In addition, all charitable organizations in Gilsum regularly filed the application late, sometimes as late as November and December of the tax year," the lawsuit said.

The selectmen have the option of approving late applications.

The lawsuit said the minutes of the Nov. 29, 2010, selectmen's meeting show that after AIDS Services executive director Susan MacNeil questioned the differential treatment of her organization and the Congregational Church and American Legion, the board voted after she left not to tax the church and legion.

The suit asked for a temporary restraining order against the property seizure, a preliminary and permanent injunction, as well as a petition for damages and attorney's fees against the town and involved town officials.

Before a hearing regarding the restraining order scheduled in Superior Court on July 13, the town backed off its claim on the house for now, Klein said.

Town attorney Gary Kinyon did not return a voicemail message on Wednesday; however, Klein said the town is staying its attempt to take possession of the property for back taxes until the issue is resolved in court.

The Cleve Jones House is home to five people - three with HIV/AIDS and two with Hepatitis C.

According to court papers filed by Susan MacNeil, executive director of AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region, the organization has owned and run the property as the Cleve Jones Wellness House since 2006. If her group were to lose the house through the filing of a tax deed by the town, the current residents would become homeless, she wrote. "I am not aware of any other agency that would provide housing to them. This would have disastrous consequences for their medical and mental health as they are unable to live and function on their own.

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