Landowner Offers to Settle Tax Case

William Graham Hand Delivers Letter Asking the West Tisbury Selectmen to Intervene with Assessors

By IAN FEIN

West Tisbury resident William W. Graham appealed to the town selectmen this week to intervene in his costly tax case with the assessors and help negotiate a settlement.

Mr. Graham approached selectmen at their regular meeting on Wednesday, less than a week before attorneys and Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board officials are scheduled to come to the Vineyard for a three-day view and continuation of the ongoing legal hearing. He said he came before the board in a constructive manner, and hoped a settlement could be reached before more legal costs are incurred by either side.

"As much as I want to recover the considerable sum that I believe is owed me, I am mindful that the people who would pay are not those who have caused the problems," Mr. Graham wrote in a letter that he hand-delivered to the selectmen. "I have no desire to further add to the tax burden of West Tisbury residents. I'm still willing to give up my claim for reimbursement if we can reach a settlement which fixes the flaws in the mass appraisal system as it has been implemented in West Tisbury."

Mr. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is challenging his assessments for fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than half a million dollars in property taxes. Attorneys for Mr. Graham charged during the tax board hearing that the system town assessors use to determine land values and property taxes is fundamentally flawed.

Testimony in the hearing began May 3 and ended Sept. 2, standing as the longest residential property tax appeal in the history of the commonwealth.

The complex and far-reaching case has depleted the town's legal budget. The total price tag is unknown and still growing.

Mr. Graham's letter was not the only one received by West Tisbury selectmen this week about town assessors and their decisions to spend taxpayer money to defend their methods. Dr. Timothy and Ellen Guiney, who own two lots abutting Mr. Graham on the north shore near Paul's Point, wrote a letter expressing their dismay that the assessors have forced them to hire an attorney.

Selectmen did not respond to either letter publicly at the meeting. Both letters are published on the commentary page in today's Gazette.

The Guineys are challenging the assessment of eight acres, originally valued by the town last year at $11.2 million. After the Guineys filed for an abatement, assessors lowered the value of the property to $10 million. The Guineys believe their property is still overvalued compared to others in the area, so they appealed to the state tax board and requested an informal hearing, which is typically conducted without attorneys and reduces expenses.

The Guineys learned last week from the assessors' attorney Ellen Hutchinson that the town had exercised its right to switch the appeal to a formal hearing.

"[W]e did not think lawyers were needed in what is not a legal matter," the Guineys wrote in the letter this week, sent to both the assessors and the selectmen.

The Guineys have had their property on the market for sale for more than two years, but have not received a single offer. It is currently listed at $10.5 million.

Reached at his Boston office this week, Dr. Guiney, a well-known cardiologist who divides his time between the Martha's Vineyard Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, said that he and his wife plan to move to a property they purchased in the Chilmark section of Seven Gates Farm, where taxes are markedly less.

"My view is I have been driven out of my house, quite effectively, by the board of assessors in West Tisbury," Dr. Guiney said.

Dr. Guiney said the assessors have been difficult and impolite throughout the abatement process, and that the most recent decision fit with their "usual high-handed and arrogant style." He said he still did not understand why the assessors decided to switch the case to a formal hearing.

There is no record in assessors minutes that shows when the assessors made the decision.

"It's hard for me to imagine how it is that these people can have so much to say about on the one hand raising tax money to support the town, and on the other committing the town to a very substantial expenditure," Dr. Guiney said. "The selectmen ought to be deciding whether to negotiate with Bill Graham, and not these people."

In his letter to the selectmen this week Mr. Graham expressed his own puzzlement and frustration at the behavior of the assessors.

"I have always thought that this case could have been resolved through negotiations," Mr. Graham wrote. "It always puzzled me that the board of assessors seemed so disinterested in discussing a settlement. After listening to [assessors chairman] Michael Colaneri testify at trial, I realized it was unclear if the elected assessors were the people deciding whether to settle the case."

Mr. Graham delivered to each selectman a black binder containing his letter and transcripts of Mr. Colaneri's testimony from the tax board hearing. The letter cited specific references from the transcript when Mr. Colaneri said that, despite his 30 years on the board of assessors, he did not know much about the assessing system used by the town. Mr. Colaneri said he relies on the work of West Tisbury principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes and the town's third-party consultant - Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro.

The Graham case directly challenged the practices of Ms. Resendes and Vision Appraisal officials, alleging they falsified property records to hit predetermined values.

"[Mr. Colaneri's testimony] points to a fundamental problem: if the chairman of the board of assessors doesn't know how the mass appraisal system should work, it's impossible for him to decide whether or not the system is working properly. If he doesn't know that, he cannot say whether there should be a settlement," Mr. Graham wrote. He also wrote:

"It is unfair for us to expect Ms. Resendes to be able to make unbiased decisions about what to do in these circumstances, yet, by default, she is the one who will decide whether and how the town continues to respond to this case and other cases unless you as selectmen decide to act."

Mr. Graham said he is willing to abandon his property tax appeals for fiscal years 2003, 2004 and 2005 if the selectmen can help find a way to fix the townwide assessment system going forward.

If the selectmen are willing to negotiate, Mr. Graham said he will ask the tax board to put the upcoming views on hold. He said it was the looming increase in legal bills - along with his reflection on the testimony of Mr. Colaneri - that spurred him to approach the board this week.

Prior to Mr. Graham's appearance, the selectmen had scheduled an executive session meeting for yesterday afternoon to discuss the case with assessors and Ms. Hutchinson. At press time yesterday, it was not known whether there was any public outcome from the session.

If negotiations do not occur, the tax board view is set to begin on Tuesday and last into Thursday. Another view session is expected later in the fall.

Mr. Graham told selectmen this week that if the case reaches a decision, an appeal from either side is inevitable.

Selectmen at a board meeting two weeks ago acknowledged they had concerns about legal spending related to the case. A special town meeting is expected in November to address the legal bills, among other things, although no date has been set.

Selectmen said this week they still do not have a handle on how much the town may owe.

According to bills obtained by the Gazette, the town has paid roughly $11,000 for travel expenses incurred by Ms. Resendes during the hearing and almost $12,000 in bills from the appellate tax board for the court reporter and transcripts.

As of yesterday, Ms. Hutchinson had not billed the town for any work she has done since May 19. Her rate to the town is $175 per hour. The town has also not yet received bills for its two expert witnesses during the hearing.

"All I can say is we have a lot of questions," selectman Glenn Hearn said in response to a question about the legal bills at a board meeting two weeks ago. "Someday we're going to have to pay these bills, and I think people are going to want answers."