Appraisal Company President Sends Out Missive on Tax Case

By IAN FEIN

The head of Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. has stepped into the fray surrounding the Graham property tax case against West Tisbury assessors.

Defending his Northboro company, Vision Appraisal president Kevin Comer sent to clients across the commonwealth last week a letter that criticized press coverage of the case and comments attributed to West Tisbury resident William W. Graham and his attorney.

Heard last summer by the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board in Boston, the Graham case challenged aspects of the Vision valuation system as it is used in West Tisbury. Still pending with a decision not expected for months, it stands now as the longest residential property tax appeal in the history of the state.

Mr. Comer in his letter said he believes the case has been blown out of proportion.

"This case, despite all the attention it has received, is really no different than other cases our company has been involved in over many years," Mr. Comer wrote.

"In our opinion, this case involves an owner who simply does not like his value," he added. "Whether or not he has a plausible argument, he has the means to continue contesting the case and the influence to draw press coverage."

Mr. Comer said this week that he authored the two-page letter in response to a Jan. 8 Cape Cod Times article, which discussed the Graham case and its potential implications off-Island.

The letter does not mention the extensive Chappaquiddick abatement situation in Edgartown, which was also discussed in the Cape Cod Times article and where Mr. Comer has acknowledged mistakes.

The complete text of the letter appears on the Commentary Page in today's Gazette.

Vision Appraisal assists assessors across New England with state-mandated property revaluations. The company represents more than 50 towns and cities in Massachusetts, including every town on the Vineyard except Chilmark.

Mr. Comer in his letter urged clients not to pass judgment on the Graham case until a tax board decision is rendered. At times he was pointed in his criticism of the press coverage.

"The press involvement here is actually very interesting because it is an attempt to influence public opinion without having to provide any real details of the case," Mr. Comer wrote. "In effect, the press is exerting its influence in order to put the assessing industry on trial."

Mr. Comer in the letter and again this week said he believes the Graham case is not about methodology, but rather a waterfront landowner who is unhappy with his values. Mr. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is challenging his $50 million assessments from fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than a half-million dollars in property taxes.

In the letter Mr. Comer listed what he saw as some of the important facts from the case. He also wrote that Mr. Graham's case "makes no mention of sales data or market activity which, to say the least, is very unusual in a tax appeal."

"To us this entire case is about how much this property is worth - period," Mr. Comer said this week. "We don't see this as any different."

Mr. Graham this week rebutted some of Mr. Comer's assertions. "The letter is fundamentally misleading because [Mr. Comer] chooses to ignore that my case is primarily a claim of disproportionate assessment," Mr. Graham said. "The value of my lots by themselves isn't the key - the key is the value of my lots as compared to other lots throughout the town."

Mr. Graham also made note of at least one factual error in the letter – which refers to his property on Nantucket Sound, even though it is on Vineyard Sound. "It seems to me that the quality of Vision's work is amply illustrated by the fact that [Mr. Comer] doesn't even know where my property is," Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Comer's comments also contradict a previous statement by West Tisbury board of assessors chairman Michael Colaneri. In his only public comments about the case, Mr. Colaneri at a November special town meeting described the Graham appeal as a first-of-its kind case that challenged how assessors conduct their townwide revaluations.

Other assessors in the state have also described the Graham case as unique, and acknowledged that it could have repercussions elsewhere.

Sandwich assessor Edward Childs, the new president of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers (MAAO), said this week that Cape and south shore communities, as well as MAAO executives and committees, have been following the case.

Mr. Childs said that although the Graham appeal was not a part of the official agenda at the association's winter conference last weekend, it was a topic during private discussions. He said there is much speculation about the case, and some assessors are anxiously awaiting a tax board decision.

The town of Sandwich does not use Vision Appraisal or its company software for the townwide revaluations, but Mr. Childs said that he would not avoid hiring the company solely because of the Graham case. He said that it is the data entered into the software by the assessors that ultimately determines values and their equitability, not the software itself.

Attorney Richard Wulsin, who is representing Mr. Graham and is criticized in Mr. Comer's letter for previous comments about the case, agreed with Mr. Childs.

"My view is that the Vision software is neither better nor worse than most of the mass appraisal software out there," Mr. Wulsin said. "The problem is how it was used by the West Tisbury assessors. What they have done is manipulated the system to come up with predetermined values - which makes it no longer a valid system."

The Graham case also explored the role played by Vision employees, alongside town assessors, during the alleged manipulation of the revaluation process.

The role of Vision employees has also come under scrutiny in Edgartown, where assessors have expressed disappointment and dissatisfaction with the company. After Vision officials admitted that they made a mistake in valuing Chappaquiddick properties last year, Edgartown assessors granted more than $150 million in abatements and returned more than $450,000 in collected taxes.

In a sign of contrition to the town, Mr. Comer 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. Town assessors took Vision up on its offer, but have said they will not rehire the company to determine residential values in the future.

Mr. Comer said this week that he did not mention the Edgartown situation in his letter to other clients because he believes it is entirely unrelated to the Graham case. "That's a completely different situation," Mr. Comer said. "It is unfortunate that they happened at same time."

He also responded to the recent decision by some West Tisbury voters to withhold payment of past-due legal bills from the Graham case. Vision will receive only $6,000 from what was originally a $30,000 bill for attendance and testimony during the tax board hearing last summer.

Mr. Comer said he was disappointed in town voters who did not support payment, but he reiterated previous statements that he does not see the company suing the town for the money. Town and state attorneys have said that the town is under no legal obligation to pay the bills.

Mr. Comer said the company will assist the West Tisbury assessors with their adjustment of property values this winter - the town tax bills are late this year, in large part because of time spent by the assessors on the Graham case - but he said the prospect of future work between the company and the town remains unclear. Vision has assisted West Tisbury assessors for roughly 20 years.

"I will certainly be a lot more cautious before I do business with the town again," Mr. Comer said.