Real Property

State Tax Panel Urges Regional Assessing System

By IAN FEIN

After a year marked by high-profile property tax disputes in two Vineyard towns, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue is pushing the idea of a regional assessing office as a way to improve the accuracy of property values and and accountability of Island assessors.

State tax officials said that all six towns on the Vineyard would benefit if they shared their data and resources, hired top-quality assessors and relied less on outside consultants.

"When you're dealing with the extraordinary property values that you have on the Vineyard, you need to make sure that your assessing operation is the most professional and experienced one available under law," division of local services spokesman Lydia Hill said in a telephone interview with the Gazette this week. "With the pooled resources of the entire Island, the Vineyard could have one of the most sophisticated assessing operations in the commonwealth.

"And that's what the Vineyard needs," she said.

The Islandwide assessing recommendation surfaced last month in a Department of Revenue report about financial practices in the town of Aquinnah, where the state shared harsh criticism with the town assessing department. But Ms. Hill said this week that the idea originated earlier, as department officials followed the pending Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board case against West Tisbury assessors and the large number of abatements granted by Edgartown assessors last year.

Ms. Hill said in the larger context, the Department of Revenue considered the regional assessing recommendation to be the most important of the two dozen suggestions made in the Aquinnah report.

"We actally had this idea before we went into Aquinnah town hall, specifically because of what we've been watching in Edgartown and West Tisbury," said Ms. Hill, who was also the lead project manager of the Aquinnah financial review. "And after we saw what we did in Aquinnah, it was abundantly clear that other towns would also benefit if this happened."

Ms. Hill, who was promoted to her current position after finishing the Aquinnah project, has some familiarity with the Vineyard. She is the grandaughter of Mary Louisa (Polly) Hill, the creator and namesake of the North Tisbury arboretum.

And she said that while regional assessing offices are a standing recommendation statewide, the Department of Revenue feels strongly that the Island is a particularly opportune place for it to happen. Ms. Hill noted that average property values in the six Island towns all rank in the top 13 in the state.

"The Vineyard is in a position where regional assessing would be especially advantageous," Ms. Hill said.

Assessors from each of the six Vineyard towns meet occasionally as the Island Counties Assessor Association, where they network and talk about various problems. But the Department of Revenue is suggesting a formal governmental entity that would be codified in an intermunicipal agreement.

Ms. Hill said the state feels that the regional office would result in significant cost savings to Island taxpayers, and would also allow the small communities to share data that would produce more accurate and uniform assessments.

She carefully noted that the recommendation was not intended as a criticism of the existing Island personnel. But, in the high-stakes environment posed by unprecedented property values, Ms. Hill said the Vineyard assessing operations should be conducted by top-quality assessors, with less reliance on outside consultants.

Last year five Island towns hired Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro to conduct their triennial revaluations - at a total cost to Vineyard taxpayers of roughly $400,000. Questions about the work of Vision Appraisal are also central in both the Edgartown and West Tisbury disputes.

Marilyn Browne, chief of the bureau of local assessments in the Department of Revenue, urged Vineyard leaders to explore the regional assessing option.

"Island towns share special and complex appraisal issues. Several communities pooling financial resources would allow them to hire a highly qualified and experienced professional assessor that a single town could not otherwise afford," Ms. Browne said this week. "I would encourage the towns to conduct a cost-benefit anaylsis study because we believe it would support our contention that taxpayers would significantly benefit from the shared assesssor model."

Assessing departments in the six Vineyard towns have a combined budget of about $750,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. The per-parcel cost is roughly equivalent to that of the Nantucket assessing department, which does residential revaluations without hiring outside consultants.

For the Vineyard to create a regional assessing department, town meeting voters would need to approve an intergovernmental agreement.

The Department of Revenue acknowledged that Island towns have been reluctant to embrace regional efforts in the past. But the combined assessor office already has support from selectmen in at least three towns.

Oak Bluffs selectman Kerry Scott and West Tisbury selectman Glenn Hearn, both of whom have been vocal with their concerns about Vision Appraisal, reached out to the Department of Revenue this month to discuss the regional assessing option. And Aquinnah selectmen, who have placed a question on the annual town election ballot that would transfer the role of assessors to the board of selectmen, said they are eager to explore the idea.

"Clearly to me, assessing is the most important regional initiative we can take right now," Aquinnah selectman Camille Rose said this week.

Only one regional assessing department has been created in the state. In 1994, three small towns in north-central Massachusetts - Ashby, Lunenburg and Townsend - combined their assessing functions when one of the towns was under orders from the state to improve its department. Regional assessor Harald Scheid said the office has worked well since he first took the job 12 years ago. He also started a small assessing company, called Regional Resource Group, which staffs and serves five other neighboring towns.

"It's been wonderful. It saves the communities financially, and the job gets done well," Mr. Scheid said. "We pool all sorts of data on a regional level, which gives us a lot more to work with."

Mr. Scheid said he is familiar with the property tax disputes in Edgartown and West Tisbury, and would recommend a regional assessing model for the Island.

Several of his communities use Vision Appraisal software, Mr. Scheid said, but he does all of the revaluation work in-house.

"I think there's a big benefit going with our approach," Mr. Scheid said. "Unlike a reval company that only comes into a community once every three years, does its work and then leaves, we're here and have a presence throughout the year."

Ms. Hill agreed.

"If a taxpayer walks into a town hall and wants to know specifics about how their properties were calculated, they should be able to get a straight answer," she said.