Edgartown Set for Tax Review

Local Assessments Bureau Studies Abatements on Chappaquiddick; Officials on Island and Beyond Monitor West Tisbury Case

By IAN FEIN

One week after testimony concluded in the protracted West Tisbury property tax appeal, a Massachusetts Department of Revenue bureau chief confirmed that the state will conduct a rare supplemental review of Edgartown property values after a spate of unusual abatements were granted on Chappaquiddick.

Marilyn Browne, chief of the Bureau of Local Assessments in the Department of Revenue, said this week that to her knowledge no Massachusetts town had ever granted so many significant abatements, especially to a particular area of town.

Edgartown assessors this spring acknowledged errors made by their third-party consultant during a townwide revaluation last year and granted abatements to more than 125 Chappaquiddick property owners, lowering the collective value of their property by more than $150 million. A number of Chappaquiddick landowners are now expected to challenge their values at the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board in Boston.

Ms. Browne said the bureau - which oversees and certifies assessments across the commonwealth - will send someone to Edgartown this fall to review the values. She acknowledged that it was unusual for the bureau to send an employee to a town assessors office during a non-revaluation year.

"What we're going to do is make sure that all of the taxpayers in the community are being treated fairly," Mrs. Browne said this week. "We certified all the properties in town at being full and fair cash value. We don't want to have what we did be undermined."

Ms. Browne also testified as a witness for the town of West Tisbury in the recently concluded tax board hearing. In the hearing, the longest residential property tax appeal in the history of the commonwealth, attorneys for West Tisbury resident William W. Graham charged that the system town assessors used to determine land values and property taxes is fundamentally flawed.

With the unusual abatement situation in Edgartown and the longest and costliest residential property tax challenge in West Tisbury, property assessments are the subject of growing discussion among Island taxpayers.

Assessors in the four other Vineyard towns and elsewhere in the state spoke this week about the process of determining values in light of the recent appeals. Most called it an inherently imperfect system.

"Assessing is the combination of a science and an art - and when the market is as extreme as it is right now, you're going to find that people question their assessments," Melanie Bilodeau, chairman of the Oak Bluffs board of assessors, said yesterday. "I don't think that's a huge flag that's something wrong."

Elected assessors on the Vineyard all expressed confidence in their own town's values and for the most part said the events in West Tisbury and Edgartown did not make them question their own systems. But off-Island assessors expressed concern that the West Tisbury tax board hearing poses implications that could reverberate throughout the commonwealth.

"We do know that it's going to have a major impact on the assessing profession," Alfred Razzaboni, president of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers, said about the tax board hearing. "And this is quite concerning to many assessors throughout the state."

Reached by telephone at his Wakefield home on Wednesday, Mr. Razzaboni said the case has been the topic of discussion at a number of the association's public meetings, and that just this week he attended a meeting of the organization's legislative committee where they talked about implications of the West Tisbury hearing.

Mr. Razzaboni chose not to discuss the details of the case, but he did say assessors are concerned about the precedent and process that might develop under the new chairman of the tax board, Anne Foley, who presided over the West Tisbury hearing.

"Not to take anything away from her credibility, but we do concern ourselves whenever a new person on the appellate tax board handles such a major case," Mr. Razzaboni said. "Basically, any decision that comes out of the appellate tax board could have either very good effects or devastating effects - it all depends on which way the commissioner goes."

Mr. Razzaboni said a central concern is whether all the information that goes into developing property assessments will now be reviewed by the tax board.

Nantucket town assessor Deborah Dilworth, who said she too has followed the West Tisbury hearing, echoed Mr. Razzaboni's remarks.

"What's interesting about the Graham case is that so much time was spent on the property records," Ms. Dilworth added. "There is some concern within the [assessing] association that it's going to make it harder for us, that there is going to be more of a focus on the records. It could have some repercussions."

Ms. Dilworth described assessing as an imprecise practice, particularly the creation of different neighborhoods - a key aspect of the townwide revaluation process that has come under scrutiny in both West Tisbury and Edgartown.

"Delineating the neighborhoods is a challenge. It's like connecting the dots," Ms. Dilworth said. "The bottom line is to try to fairly distribute the tax base, and you do the best you can with what you have."

Ms. Dilworth also spoke briefly about Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro - the third-party consultant company used by assessors in every Vineyard town except Chilmark.

Edgartown assessors this spring expressed their unhappiness with Vision Appraisal, which they said made major errors in different parts of the town during last year's revaluation. It was the first time the company valued residential properties in Edgartown. Vision Appraisal representatives later apologized for mistakes they made on Chappaquiddick, and agreed to revalue all of the Chappaquiddick properties this year at no cost to the town.

The Vision Appraisal revaluation process is also at the center of the West Tisbury tax case, and company representatives worked actively with town assessors to defend the case.

Ms. Dilworth said Nantucket used Vision Appraisal for its revaluation 10 years ago, but has since valued all of the residential properties without using a third-party company. She said it was more efficient to do the work in-house, although she did not have any specific concerns about Vision Appraisal, which still works with her office to assess commercial properties in town.

She added that regardless of whether a town hires an outside consultant, the ultimate responsibility still falls with the assessors.

"You can delegate personal duties, but you can't delegate the responsibility for values," Ms. Dilworth said. "It's our signatures on the documents."

Longtime elected Chilmark assessor Leonard Jason Jr. said this week that his board had an opportunity to hire Vision Appraisal for their 2003 revaluation, but decided to stay with a smaller firm instead.

With respect to the Graham hearing, Mr. Jason said he believes the tax board decision will ultimately hinge on whether the town's assessment was correct. He said the final values are more important than the system that produces them.

"I don't know if how you get there is as important as if you're there," Mr. Jason said. "If your value's right, who the hell cares? That's what everybody strives for - the right value, treat it fairly."

Tisbury elected assessor David Dandridge said this week that he has been happy with the work of Vision Appraisal, and that the town's assessment system continues to improve.

"If you look at Tisbury you might see the same firm delivering a product that's close to the mark," Mr. Dandridge said. "Because in the time that I've been on the board I feel like we've managed to make the system work better all the time. Valuing the entire town is a very difficult task, and by working with them we've gotten quite a satisfactory product."

Aquinnah elected assessor Michael Stutz also expressed satisfaction with Vision Appraisal, and said he has actively searched for flaws in the company's methods. The Aquinnah assessors held public abatement hearings last month and adjusted some values in response to appeals, he noted, but only by relatively small amounts.

"I haven't seen a problem with Vision, and I've been looking for it - studying it day and night," Mr. Stutz said. "We faced an appeal about three years ago, and I looked carefully at Vision's appraisal of property values in Aquinnah as part of that process. The results of my research and comparing the values given by Vision to the actual sale prices of properties amazed me. I believed that Vision's approach had to be kind of rough - and yet when I looked at it, it was spot on in nearly every instance."

Ms. Bilodeau in Oak Bluffs said she had no concerns about Vision Appraisal, and criticized the coverage of the Edgartown and West Tisbury assessment appeals in the Gazette.

"I'm disappointed that you're stirring the pot," Ms. Bilodeau said. "Because these offices work very hard."

Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott had another view.

"I have huge questions about Vision Appraisal - you bet I do," Ms. Scott said this week. "I'm very worried about what happens when we hand over our destiny to an outside company."

Ms. Scott has called for a public meeting between selectmen and town assessors to discuss concerns raised by the West Tisbury hearing and expressed by other taxpayers in town. The joint meeting has not yet been scheduled, but Ms. Scott said she is determined to make it happen.

"I need someone to reassure us that we won't find ourselves in the same sort of mess that West Tisbury is in," Ms. Scott said. "It is my responsibility to the people who elected me to put it on the table. We need to shine the light on it so that our people know that we're watching very carefully with great interest and that we're protecting their rights."

Ms. Scott agreed with assessors elsewhere in the state who said the West Tisbury case poses widespread implications.

"I believe that what has happened in West Tisbury is going to have echoes for years to come around the ways we raise property taxes in Massachusetts," Ms. Scott said. "I think Bill Graham has shown us that there are huge flaws - frightening flaws - in the way towns conduct this type of business. There can be nothing arbitrary - and there should be nothing subjective - about the process of taxation. That's been a cornerstone of our government and our society," she added.

"We need to find out if our system is broken," Ms. Scott said. "Because if it is we can fix it."