The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hicks, J.
Board of Tax and Land Appeals
Submitted: January 16, 2013
The City of Nashua (City) appeals a decision of the New
Hampshire Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA) ruling that the taxpayer, Marijane Kennedy (taxpayer), is entitled to an "elderly exemption" under RSA 72:39-a (2012) for the tax year 2011. We reverse.
The following facts were found by the BTLA or are supported in the record. On April 11, 2011, the taxpayer filed an application with the City for an elderly exemption for tax year 2011. The application listed total assets, not
including the value of her residence, of $145,724.19. It also noted the existence of an equity loan secured by the taxpayer's residence in the amount of $42,000. To qualify for the elderly exemption under the City's ordinance, the taxpayer's net assets must not exceed $125,000, excluding the value of the taxpayer's residence. The City denied the exemption on the ground that the taxpayer's net assets exceeded $125,000.
The taxpayer appealed to the BTLA. She contended that because the statutory definition of "net assets" deducts the value of "good faith encumbrances," RSA 72:39-a, I(c), the amount of her equity loan should be subtracted from her total assets (excluding the value of her residence) to arrive at "net assets," thereby bringing her "net assets" below the prescribed limit. The BTLA agreed, and the City appealed.
"Our standard for review of BTLA decisions is statutory." Appeal of Wilson, 161 N.H. 659, 661 (2011); see RSA 541:13 (2007). We will not set aside or vacate "the order or decision appealed from . . . except for errors of law, unless [we are] satisfied, by a clear preponderance of the evidence before [us], that such order is unjust or unreasonable." RSA 541:13. "The interpretation of a statute is to be decided ultimately by this court. Therefore, if we find that the BTLA misapprehended or misapplied the law, its order will be set aside." Appeal of Wilson, 161 N.H. at 661 (quotation and brackets omitted). "We review the BTLA's statutory interpretation de novo." Id. at 662.
The starting point in any statutory interpretation case is the language of the statute itself. We first look to the plain and ordinary meaning of the words used. As we examine the language, we do not merely look at isolated words or phrases, but instead we consider the statute as a whole. In so doing, we are better able to discern the legislature's intent, and therefore better able to understand the statutory language in light of the policy sought to be advanced by the entire statutory scheme.
Pennelli v. Town of Pelham, 148 N.H. 365, 366 (2002) (quotations and citations omitted). Moreover, our construction of tax statutes is "guided by the well- settled principle that a tax exemption is construed to give full effect to the legislative intent of the statute." Id. (ellipsis omitted).
The statute at issue, entitled "Conditions for Elderly Exemption," provides in pertinent part:
I. No exemption shall be allowed under RSA 72:39-b unless the person applying therefor: (c) Owns net assets not in excess of the amount determined by the city or town for purposes of RSA 72:39-b, excluding the value of the person's actual residence and the land upon which it is located up to the greater of 2 acres or the minimum single family residential lot size specified in the local zoning ordinance. . . "Net assets" means the value of all assets, tangible and intangible, minus the value of any good faith encumbrances. "Residence" means the housing unit, and related structures such as an unattached garage or woodshed, which is the person's principal home, and which the person in good faith regards as home to the exclusion of any other places where the person may temporarily live. "Residence" shall exclude attached dwelling units and unattached structures used or intended for commercial or other nonresidential purposes.
Both parties contend that the statute's meaning can be discerned from its plain language and that, in any event, there is "no formal legislative history" that "clarifies" the calculation of net assets. The City argues that the term "value" in the first sentence of RSA 72:39-a, I(c) "includes both the market value of the residence and any encumbrances on that residence." Therefore, both the market value of the residence and the amount of any encumbrance on it are excluded from the calculation of net assets. The taxpayer counters that the first sentence of RSA 72:39-a, I(c) "contains no reference to any encumbrance; it refers only to the value of the residence." She argues that the legislature could have added language to modify the term "value," but did not. Thus, the taxpayer implicitly invokes the standard of statutory construction that ...