'I'm happy to pay the rates on my home ... I just want to know the reason why they have doubled'
Graphic designer locked in legal battle with property agency
A former New York graphic designer, who now lives near Downpatrick in a house with breathtaking views of the Mourne Mountains, is fighting a one-man battle against bureaucracy.
Walter Graham is at the centre of an ongoing row with Land & Property Services (LPS) over its rates demand for the rundown farmhouse which he turned into his dream home 25 years ago.
Mr Graham said that his rates bill suddenly doubled and, after at first paying up without question for several years, he decided to seek an explanation for the hike, and called for LPS to issue him with an itemised invoice.
"Which they have never done," said father-of-two Mr Graham, who in the 1990s was at the forefront of a successful campaign against fluoridation in Northern Ireland.
Mr Graham said that his rates bill was calculated by LPS on what it assessed his house to be worth in January 2005 - at the height of the property boom here.
"Essentially they were guessing about the value of my property, but I wanted to see the facts and figures, because my new rates were twice what they were," he said.
"I asked if I would get a refund if the price they had set on the property went down.
"They said no and added that my rates would never go down, only up."
Mr Graham, who said that the value of his house has plummeted since the dramatic crash in property prices, sent a letter to LPS asking that his rates bill should be itemised with a detailed breakdown of how the figures had been calculated.
"I said I would pay what I lawfully owed on receipt of an itemised invoice, so that I could check the arithmetic," he said.
"I'd been in business for years ,but I never paid out on a number on a page."
Mr Graham said LPS replied with a warning that if he didn't pay up he would be taken to court.
"I insisted that I wasn't refusing to pay and that court action was unnecessary," he said.
However, he later received a letter saying he would have to appear in court in January of this year. "But when I rang the court in a bid to have the date changed, an official said the notice had not come from them but rather from LPS," he said.
"I didn't think they had the power to issue court summonses, so I wrote to them pointing that out the communication they sent me had no signature from a judge or a magistrate on it. I was told that even if I didn't go to court a judgment would still be made against me."
Mr Graham went to Downpatrick courthouse to challenge the rates demand, but on arrival he was told by an official that the LPS had withdrawn all its claims against him, but didn't say why.
But that wasn't the end of the matter.
Mr Graham said: "In the next year's LPS bill the rates I didn't pay for the previous period had reappeared and somehow they had increased by about £100 and there was no explanation for that either."
He again didn't pay and he has now been ordered to return to Downpatrick Magistrates Court next week.
"I've been writing to them every week for months with legal letters asking for more information and challenging them on what they are doing and asking about the law that says I am required to pay the rates," Mr Graham said.
"All I want is to see the documentation that supports what the LPS is doing but its hasn't written back to me with any answers."
A spokesman for LPS said that it collects rates on behalf of the Stormont Executive and local councils and that revenue raised helps fund vital public services like hospitals and schools.
Explaining how the rates are calculated, the spokesman said: "We are required by law to assess a capital value for properties. Rates on domestic properties are based on this capital value, which is the price the property would have expected to fetch on the open market in January 2005.
"We would encourage any ratepayer who has concerns about the valuation of their property to get in touch with us."
The spokesman added: "Every effort is made to help customers who have difficulty paying their bills, but if payment isn't made, LPS will take action to recover outstanding rates through the NI Courts and Tribunal Service."
A spokesman for the Court Service said that LPS routinely bring debt cases before the magistrates courts in accordance with its statutory powers.
"LPS is empowered to serve its own debt processes, which are then listed for hearing before a magistrates court. The debtors are entitled to attend the hearing and make representations or dispute the claim," he said.
Mr Graham was born in Northern Ireland, but his parents emigrated to America and his brother Roy was killed in the Vietnam War.
Mr Graham returned to Belfast to study at the Art College before moving to England to work as a teacher, but switched to a better paid job as an art director in a printing firm before re-settling in the USA, where he set up his own design company in Manhattan.
"I was working every hour of every day and after my marriage to Maria we decided we wanted to raise our children in Northern Ireland," he said.
"And then we found this house, which I gutted and renovated from top to bottom."
Mr Graham still works as a freelance designer and he and his wife also pursue a joint interest in painting from their home, which doubles as their studio.