Attorneys Pressing Tax Case Underscore Serious Flaws in Town Assessment System

By IAN FEIN

BOSTON - Attorneys for Island resident William W. Graham at a legal hearing this week charged the fundamental system West Tisbury assessors use to determine land values and property taxes throughout the town is seriously flawed.

"Your honor, what's at issue in this case is the valuation model for West Tisbury, to the extent that there is a model," attorney Richard Wulsin, who is representing Mr. Graham, told the chairman of the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board in Boston on Tuesday.

Prior to this week Mr. Graham's case focused mainly on the claim that his land - 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, which the town currently values at more than $58 million - was disproportionately assessed. But in this third week of the hearing, his attorneys argued that inconsistencies in the West Tisbury assessors' methods are systemic.

Toward the close of testimony yesterday, Mr. Wulsin asked West Tisbury principal assessor JoAnn Resendes whether it is appropriate that the town keeps more detailed records for building assessments than for the land, which has a much greater effect on property values in West Tisbury and yet is described in only two lines of subjective data.

In particular, Mr. Wulsin pointed to a 50-acre parcel owned by Mr. Graham that contains four buildings. Assessors records in 2003 had four full pages of information about the buildings, which were valued at less than $2 million, while the 50 acres of land valued at more than $17 million were described in only a few words.

Mr. Wulsin asked Ms. Resendes whether it would have been appropriate for assessors to have recorded more details about the land. Attorney Ellen Hutchinson, representing the West Tisbury assessors, objected to Mr. Wulsin's line of questioning as irrelevant.

Much of the town's defense so far has relied on the assessors' use of the so-called "two-land-line valuation model," as opposed to a model with more lines of description. The West Tisbury model values land by separating it into two lines on a property record card: one for a prime site of up to three acres, and a second for any excess acreage.

"The town speaks of the two-land-line model as if it is the Holy Grail," Mr. Wulsin argued. "I'd like to find out why it is the Holy Grail. You'd think having more land lines would allow them to arrive at more accurate land values," he added.

"Are you questioning the whole fundamentals of whether a two-land-line model is appropriate for West Tisbury?" asked tax board chairman Anne Foley, who is presiding over the case.

"Yes," Mr. Wulsin replied.

"Then, I think it's very much relevant," Chairman Foley said before overruling Ms. Hutchinson's objection and asking Ms. Resendes to answer.

"The two-land-line model is the standard for the town of West Tisbury, and therefore it was appropriate," Ms. Resendes said.

During direct questioning this week, Ms. Resendes explained that, in the two-land-line model, specific characteristics of a property that would impact value - specifically access, slope, size, view and sometimes wetlands - are not factored in individually. She said the assessors instead make one overall judgment about how all the different characteristics affect the excess acreage of a property, and then adjust the land value accordingly. She said assessors often describe the overall adjustment by using a single designation: "topo" (short for topographical).

"So there's really no way for someone to know how the topo adjustment was determined, or what that was based on?" Mr. Wulsin asked.

"In specifics, no," Ms. Resendes answered.

In testimony last week Ms. Resendes explained that different physical characteristics or conditions of a property should be reflected on its record card, which then allows assessors to determine its overall value.

But after Mr. Wulsin questioned her about potential changes to the land lines on Mr. Graham's lots, Ms. Resendes testified that she sometimes begins with an estimated value of a certain property and then adjusts different factors on its record card until the result comes within range of her estimated value.

"You try a condition factor, plug it into the computer, and at some point the number that comes out you believe would be appropriate," Ms. Resendes testified. "The condition factor would be based upon your end result."

"I thought you had a system where factors produce values. Now you're saying that values determine factors?" Mr. Wulsin asked.

"It's all part of the mathematical calculations," Ms. Resendes answered.

"But the question is - which way the calculations are going," Mr. Wulsin replied.

In her cross-examination of Ms. Resendes, Ms. Hutchinson talked her client through a long series of property record cards to show that the valuation methods, namely the two-land-line model, were consistent throughout the town.

But with almost every record discussed, Chairman Foley interrupted Ms. Hutchinson's questioning to ask Ms. Resendes to clarify differences she saw on the records. Some of Ms. Resendes' explanations, such as differing descriptions of wetlands classifications, appeared to be inconsistent.

Attorneys for both sides questioned Ms. Resendes for another three full days in what was her second consecutive week on the stand. Before she was excused yesterday afternoon, Ms. Resendes had testified under oath for more than 25 hours.

The tax dispute has taken longer than either side anticipated. Mr. Graham's attorneys have not yet rested their case, and Chairman Foley said yesterday that she does not think anybody knows how long the deliberations will take.

Because of scheduling issues, the hearing is now in recess and will reconvene in June. Mr. Graham is expected to take the stand at some point after the hearing resumes.

This case poses a potentially large financial impact for the town. Mr. Graham's annual tax bills represent roughly three per cent of the overall town tax levy. He is challenging his assessments for fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than half a million dollars in property taxes.