Property Tax Bills Out, Also Up in Four of Six Vineyard Towns

By IAN FEIN

Property tax bills are out - and up - in four of the six Island towns. But property owners in Edgartown and West Tisbury will not see their new assessments or tax bills for another few months, as town assessors work to determine values in the wake of previous appeals from large landowners.

Assessors in the other four towns this week spoke about trends they noticed in values and tax bills across their communities. They said the sale prices of interior parcels are now increasing faster than those of waterfront lots, which soared in value in recent years but have since slowed or leveled off. Tisbury assistant assessor Patricia Blakesley said the most recent sales resulted in an increased valuation of commercial land and condominiums throughout the town.

This year marked the first time that the state required assessors on the Island to adjust their values during a non-certification year. Assessors previously could wait three years between making adjustments to match market sales, but now must submit annual reports to fulfill new statewide guidelines from the Department of Revenue. The new requirement should smooth abrupt shifts seen in previous revaluation years, such as last year on the Vineyard - when total valuation in four Island towns jumped by more than 25 per cent.

Of the three towns with numbers available, total valuation rose this year by roughly 10 per cent. Chilmark, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury now each have total property values between $2.5 billion and $2.8 billion.

While assessments determine the distribution of the tax burden across town, they do not affect the average tax bill, which is rising in Vineyard towns and across the commonwealth.

According to data from the Department of Revenue, average tax bills across Massachusetts have increased every year over the last 10 years - from $2,270 in 1996 to $3,590 in 2005 - an annual climb of more than five per cent each year. Although the reason behind the statewide trend varies among different communities, the main culprit on the Vineyard is steadily increasing town budgets.

This is also the first year that a surcharge for the Community Preservation Act (CPA) will appear on property tax bills in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury. Adopted by town meeting voters in those four towns last spring, the CPA will fund community preservation projects through a three per cent residential property tax surcharge and matching state funds.

Oak Bluffs principal assessor Dianne Wilson said she has received numerous calls this month from property owners who did not know about the CPA tax. Chilmark and Aquinnah voters adopted the CPA in 2001.

Because of the detail involved in calculating the CPA tax - which exempts the first $100,000 of value - the average property tax bills listed below do not include the CPA surcharge. However, the average CPA charge on the Vineyard appears to be roughly $100, varying from town to town.

The average single-family home in Oak Bluffs this year rose in value by roughly 11 per cent - from $540,000 to $600,000 - while the average tax bill is up about five per cent - from $3,290 to $3,460.

The town of Tisbury this year saw its average single-family home value rise roughly 16 per cent -  from $680,000 to $790,000 -  while the average corresponding tax bill went up three per cent - from $3,990 to $4,110.

Among Island towns, however, Tisbury offers its residents the greatest opportunity for tax relief. It is the only town on the Vineyard that splits its tax rate between commercial and residential properties, and is one of only about a dozen cities and towns in the commonwealth that offers an additional discount - of roughly 20 per cent - to year-round residents.

Aquinnah had the smallest increase in value this year, with the average single-family home staying close to $990,000. The average Aquinnah tax bill went up two per cent from $3,590 to $3,660.

The average single-family home in Chilmark this year rose roughly nine per cent - from $1.54 million to $1.67 million. The town retained its top spot with the highest average home value in the commonwealth. But Chilmark also has the lowest tax rate in the state, keeping tax bills relatively low. The average single-family tax bill rose about two per cent this year - from $3,010 to $3,080.

Chilmark is on a different triennial certification schedule than the other towns on the Vineyard, and was the only one required this year to do a townwide revaluation. Assistant assessor Pamela Bunker said most of the changes this year were seen townwide or to interior lots, though the Seven Gates and Squibnocket neighborhoods saw a substantial increase because of multiple sales in those areas.

While most towns on Island bill their property owners quarterly, Chilmark sends its bills on a semi-annual basis. So tax bills for Chilmark owners went out Nov. 7 and were due Dec. 7. Only a dozen property owners challenged their assessments prior to the due date.

The bills in Aquinnah, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury are due Feb. 1 - also the deadline for landowners to challenge their values and file for abatements in those towns.

Large-scale challenges in Edgartown and West Tisbury are indirectly responsible for the delay in values from those two towns this year. Assessors in both towns said this week they are working to set the values and send out the new bills as soon as possible, but added that they have no idea when they will be ready. Landowners in those towns will have 30 days from the mailing of the new bills to challenge their assessments.

Edgartown assessors planned ahead for the delay, and received approval from the state to send out a round of preliminary tax bills this winter while they continue to work on values. The preliminary bills reflect values from last year, and will be adjusted accordingly once the new assessments are determined and the next round of bills are sent.

Assessors in West Tisbury, however, did not seek to send out preliminary bills. The new bills - whenever they come out - will not be due until May 1 at the earliest.

The lack of cash flow forced West Tisbury selectmen this week to borrow $1.5 million to keep the town running for the next three months. The short-term borrowing, authorized by selectmen at their regular meeting Wednesday, will cost West Tisbury taxpayers roughly $10,000 in interest.

Town employees noted that landowners could, if they wish, send a down-payment on their future tax bills to the town tax collector.

West Tisbury principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes said this week that one reason for the delay in new values was the extensive time she spent in Boston over the summer defending a property tax appeal brought by town resident William W. Graham at the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.

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

The pending case grew to become the longest residential property tax appeal in the history of the state, and garnered wide attention from town and state officials across the commonwealth. The president of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers said in September that the case will have a major impact on the assessing profession.

The Graham case brought under intense scrutiny the assessment system developed and utilized by Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro. Every Island town except for Chilmark used the company for its most recent revaluation.

After receiving a number of calls from landowners who were concerned about possible implications of the Graham case, Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott last summer asked to meet with town assessors to discuss the Vision Appraisal valuation system. That meeting has not yet occurred.

Vision Appraisal also came under fire in Edgartown - where assessors last year acknowledged that the company overvalued much of the waterfront land on Chappaquiddick. After they were flooded with a record number of requests for property tax relief, assessors granted abatements to more than 125 Chappaquiddick properties, lowering their collective value by more than $150 million and returning to the owners more than $450,000 in collected taxes.

In a sign of contrition to the town, Vision Appraisal last spring agreed to assist the Edgartown assessors with their revaluation of all the properties on Chappaquiddick this year at no cost to the town. Assessors took the company up on its offer, but have said they will not rehire Vision Appraisal to determine residential values in the future.

When the state Department of Revenue learned of the Chappaquiddick abatements, it notified the town that it would take the unusual step of reviewing the land values again this year. A department bureau chief said in September that to her knowledge no town in the commonwealth had ever granted so many significant abatements, especially to a particular area of town.

Edgartown assessors said this week they are still waiting for the state to conduct its supplemental review.

The new Edgartown values will also be examined closely by many landowners, especially the two dozen Chappaquiddick property owners who have filed formal challenges of the previous assessments at the appellate tax board.

The pending appeals at the state pose significant financial implications for the town; assessors valued those properties last year at $116 million.

Although the cases still could be settled, Edgartown assessors in November took steps to prepare should they go to a hearing. They have budgeted $50,000 for tax board proceedings next year and sent a letter to town selectmen stating that Ellen Hutchinson is their attorney.

Ms. Hutchinson also represented the West Tisbury assessors in their appeal from Mr. Graham. West Tisbury voters this week agreed to pay $160,000 in legal bills from the case - which has a total estimated price tag of roughly a quarter-million dollars.

Edgartown assessor Edward Belisle said this week that he and his fellow assessors are doing what they can to avoid litigation.

"Our job is to settle if we can, as long as it is fair and equitable to everyone in town," he said. "That is the goal we're always working toward."