West Tisbury Selectmen Defend Principal Assessor on Spending
By IAN FEIN
West Tisbury selectmen this week criticized a story in last Friday's Gazette about costly travel expenses submitted by the town principal assessor.
Among other things, the story reported that principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes stayed in luxury Boston hotels at a cost of more than $250 per night throughout the first seven weeks of the ongoing tax hearing at the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.
"I feel that it's extremely stressful on the principal assessor. She's being taken to task and a lot of things are being put on her shoulders that she's not responsible for," said selectmen chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, who raised the issue during the board's regular meeting on Wednesday. "She's an employee of the town and she's only doing the job she's told to do. Whether it's a luxury hotel or not I don't know, and whatever expenses I don't care. They're being approved by the board of assessors."
Although he acknowledged the factual accuracy of the story, Mr. Manter said he believed it unfairly singled out Ms. Resendes. The elected town assessors approved all of her expenses, Mr. Manter said, and any questions or concerns should be directed at them.
"I support whatever they're doing and how they're doing it," Mr. Manter continued. "I mean I don't like this better than anybody else and the amount of money it's costing the town. However it's there and they're dealing with it. And the principal assessor has been singled out unfairly in this instance and other instances as being responsible for it. She's only an employee and not an employer."
Selectman John Early agreed with Mr. Manter, and also criticized the story for lacking a benchmark number of the average cost of a hotel in Boston during this time of the year.
"I think it was conspicuously missing from the article, and I think the article was flawed because of that," Mr. Early said.
Current data compiled by a third party consultant and presented by the Massachusetts Lodging Association this week listed the average hotel cost in Boston at $160 per night.
The four hotels Ms. Resendes stayed in at taxpayer expense throughout the first seven weeks of the hearing ranged in price from $255 to $366 per night. The hotel expenses Ms. Resendes submitted to the board of assessors typically cost more than $300 per night, which often included breakfast and occasionally included dinner.
Selectman Glenn Hearn had a slightly different view.
"I think it's the board of assessors who approved these, and whatever rules they make with their employee we don't know. Maybe we should come up with a town policy," Mr. Hearn said. "We talked about a town policy for legal services last week. Maybe we should have a policy for travel expenses."
The other two selectmen did not respond.
But discussion about the ongoing tax hearing and the assessors' expenses resurfaced later in the meeting, when longtime Seven Gates resident Joan Ames spoke up during the public comment period and defended the merits of the story.
"I really disagree with what you said Skipper. I feel grateful to the Gazette for covering this story," Ms. Ames said. "If I were a town employee, even if I was budgeted a certain amount, I would try to do everything I could not to spend the taxpayers' money," she continued.
"I think that's a question of sound policy by town employees. Just because you're handed a blank check isn't a reason to spend it all," Ms. Ames said.
"Who mentioned a blank check?" Mr. Manter asked.
"I just did," Ms. Ames replied. "A certain amount may have been approved for her by the board, but that doesn't mean she had to spend all that. I just feel like this is out of control."
The selectmen explained that they had no control over the assessors' expenses. "They're a separate elected board," Mr. Manter said.
Ms. Ames was unappeased.
"I'm hearing so much disgruntlement in fellow town citizens," she told the selectmen. "I film for MVTV up in Aquinnah, where they've been working for the last year to really cut back and save money . . . and I feel like I'm living in a town that is spending wildly. As a taxpayer I find it very upsetting."
Ms. Ames also cited a letter to the editor in last Friday's Gazette by Ellen and Dr. Timothy Guiney, who said they plan to move to Chilmark, "where spending is kept under control, and where the process of property taxation is more transparent."
Mr. Manter interrupted Ms. Ames. "Property's cheaper in Chilmark?" he asked.
"Apparently it is because they don't use Vision up there," Ms. Ames replied, referring to Vision Appraisal Technology Inc., the Northboro company that assisted West Tisbury with its tax revaluation and is sitting on the sidelines during the ongoing tax hearing in Boston.
West Tisbury resident William W. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is challenging the assessors' methods for determining land values and property taxes in the case, which is now the subject of growing discussion in town.
Ms. Ames told selectmen on Wednesday that she too has concerns about her assessments and property taxes.
"My home is modest. It's 1,800 square feet," she said. "But every year in taxes I'm paying a quarter of what it cost me to build my home. And that's really disheartening."
Ms. Ames recounted a visit she had with Ms. Resendes in her town hall office several years ago when she told her about the wetlands and conservation restriction she has on her property.
"I thought maybe there was some misunderstanding," Ms. Ames said. "She explained to me, ‘Forget it' "
Selectmen again tried direct Ms. Ames to the board of assessors with her concerns. Again Ms. Ames refused.
"I just want to tell you this," she said. "We went over my sheet and there was a step outside my shed about three feet by 18 inches. Well, that the assessors had chose to call a deck, and it cost me $500. And at the time I was deeply disturbed, and she changed it for me.
"But I look back on that now as I am reading about what's going on here," she said. "I gather some of us who live on the water in West Tisbury have been referred to as cash cows. Am I right John?" she asked Mr. Early.
"That's correct," he replied.
Called as a witness during the first day of the tax hearing, Mr. Early testified that in an interview with the Gazette last year he referred to some property owners in West Tisbury, including Mr. Graham, as cash cows.
"You used that phrase about me and I'm a neighbor," Ms. Ames said.
"I used it about myself too," replied Mr. Early, who also lives in Seven Gates.
"I feel like something is amiss, I'm deeply disturbed and angered, and I'm coming to you for help," Ms. Ames told the selectmen. "You're sending me to the assessors, but as selectmen of this town surely you have some responsibility to help save us citizens from these feelings of anxiety about losing our property and being treated unfairly," she said.
Mr. Hearn suggested that Ms. Ames, aside from meeting with the board of assessors, could attend the yet-to-be-scheduled special town meeting when voters will decide whether to approve legal bills for the tax board hearing that went over the town's budgeted amount last year.
"I'm sure a lot of people are going to have a lot of issues to discuss," Mr. Hearn said.
Ms. Ames had one more question for the selectmen: Could they look to see if there are cheaper hotels for Ms. Resendes to stay in?
"We don't have the answers to your questions," Mr. Manter replied. "We don't know why they stayed where they did."