West Tisbury assessments under fire - News Analysis
The West Tisbury assessors are under fire again. The latest property assessments are out, and some people are angry. A taxpayers group has begun meeting to discuss strategy. Requests for abatements have been filed by 107 property owners - about three percent of the town's total. Hot words have been exchanged at meetings of the assessors and the selectmen. A uniformed police officer was asked to attend an assessors' meeting. Information - some of it accurate, some of it not - has appeared in print and smoldered among townspeople.
Fueling the fires is the complicated system used by the assessors to evaluate property. By law, the assessors must value property at "full and fair market value." The law says that the assessors are supposed to determine that by comparing each property to similar properties which have sold in town in the previous year. In order to decide which properties are indeed similar, towns divide properties into "neighborhoods," not just by geographical proximity (although that is a factor), but by the qualities of the land (topography, water views, etc.) There are 29 "neighborhoods" in West Tisbury, and almost nobody outside the assessors' office knows where they are or how they are assigned. When a property is sold in your neighborhood for a price significantly higher than its previous assessed value, your assessment may go up by a similar percentage.
The greatest bones of contention are among landowners at Seven Gates Corporation and along the shores of Tisbury Great Pond who have seen the assessed value of their properties double or even triple. While these properties together account for only about four percent of all the assessed properties in town, many are owned by residents whose families have held the land for generations. Some are wealthy families, but many are not, and the increase in property taxes these new assessments will bring is a cause of sympathy and concern across West Tisbury.
Joan Ames and Jonathan Revere of Seven Gates, and others, have raised questions about the legitimacy of decisions made by the assessors and even about the legality of the contract between the town and Vision Appraisal Technology of Northboro, which assists West Tisbury with the three-year revaluations of property, required by the state. Vision also works for all the other towns on the Island, except Chilmark.
Tisbury Great Pond
Early last year Millard and Peggy Drexler, trustees, sold two pieces of property on Tisbury Great Pond for $19 million to a buyer identified in the assessor's records as the End of the Road LLC with a Central Park New York City address. The property had been assessed at $6 million. Its assessment is therefore increased threefold in the current revaluation. Properties in the End of the Road "neighborhood 180" should therefore expect to see large if not identical percentage increases. In the same year, the Manter family sold a property on the pond (in "neighborhood 160") for about two and a half times its former assessed value, and the Sweet family sold property on Plumbush Point (in "neighborhood 125") for one and a half times its former assessment. According to West Tisbury principal assessor Kristina West, the assessments of all the properties on the Great Pond were influenced by those three sales, and also by a sale on Oyster-Watcha Pond. The assessments in the "neighborhood" of each sale were affected the most.
The assessors have the ability to disqualify certain sales, if for example, the sales were not arms' length sales (within a family, say) or contained other special conditions that make them not comparable to other sales. Angry taxpayers say that the Drexler sale should have been disqualified because the property was not generally advertised, and therefore never on the open market. Ms. West replies that at the time the sale was registered there was no evidence that it was not a legitimate sale between a willing seller and a willing buyer. The sale was qualified by the assessors and then certified by the state. Even if the assessors wanted to retroactively disqualify the Drexler sale, they could not.
However, what the assessors are able to do is grant abatements to applicants who can demonstrate that the value of their property was unfairly or unreasonably affected by the Drexler sale. This week, they seemed to be doing that, though not to the degree wished by the angriest taxpayers. At the assessors' regular weekly meeting on Tuesday, seven properties on Tisbury Great Pond were granted abatements of 9.5, 9.5, 8.5, 10, 30, 64 and 64 percent, respectively. When asked if the abatements were recalculated as if the Drexler sale had been disqualified, assessor Cynthia Mitchell responded in the negative. "It's a negotiation," she said.
The burden of proof is on every applicant to demonstrate that his assessment is unfair. However, assessor Robert Mone commented, "These first abatements were to persons who were represented by a professional appraiser, so that we could learn from him." The inference was that the assessors are willing to discount some of the effect of the Drexler sale.
Ms. Mitchell told The Times in a telephone interview yesterday that the other applicants for abatements on the Great Pond can expect to be treated consistently by the assessors. If one applicant has successfully demonstrated a good reason for an abatement, other similar property owners will be treated the same. Even property owners who did not apply for an abatement this year can expect that the same logic will be applied to their properties in the following year, because the town is required to make annual interim adjustments.
The assessors say they believe that they have gone out of their way to serve the taxpayers. The Pease family on the Great Pond wrote an application for abatement in a timely manner but addressed it incorrectly, so that it reached the assessors after the deadline. The assessors wrote to the Department of Revenue, explaining the reason for the late filing and asking if they could review the application, and were told they could not. But the assessors have appealed that ruling, adding the argument that they would very much like to be permitted to hear the request.
Seven Gates Farm is also in "neighborhood 180," which is to say that it is very valuable land, but Ms. West told The Times that assessments there were not affected by the Drexler sale. However, at Seven Gates a piece of land assessed at $2 million was sold for $4 million. In support of the validity of that price, sales of two Seven Gates properties in Chilmark showed a similar increase in valuation. Still, taxpayers are upset about a doubling of assessments.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Ames termed the increase in valuation an "outrageously huge jump." She said that a group of aggrieved taxpayers have loosely banded together to support one another. They have been meeting informally on Sunday afternoons at the Howes House under the banner of the now defunct West Tisbury Taxpayers Association. Some have hired attorneys and appraisers to begin a fact-finding process aimed at ultimately overturning decisions they consider unfair. They will meet again this Sunday.
Ms. Ames sees Vision Appraisal as one of the villains in the tale. She told The Times that she thinks the West Tisbury request for proposals (RFP) for the revaluation has been written, perhaps even by Vision, so that only Vision can successfully bid on it. The same RFP, she notes, is issued in Edgartown, which also use Vision.
West Tisbury executive secretary and chief procurement officer Jennifer Rand responds that the RFP has been in use for many years and may have been borrowed from town to town, as is common practice. However, she says that another appraisal company bid successfully this year on the personal property portion of the revaluation in response to the identical RFP, which she offers as evidence that the RFP is not slanted exclusively toward Vision.
Mr. Revere thinks that the problem is even more sinister - "deeper," is his word. Among other errors, he questions whether the contract with Vision was properly signed, and perhaps should be voided, forcing the town to completely redo the revaluation. According to the Uniform Procurement Law, he told The Times, only the town's chief procurement officer (Ms. Rand) can sign contracts, and, he said, the Vision contract was signed by the assessors.
According to Ms. Rand, Mr. Revere has it exactly backwards. She herself did sign the contract now in use with Vision. She suggests that Mr. Revere may have seen an earlier version of the contract, voided by both parties because of a misunderstanding of the terms. However, she is unsure whether the assessors, as an elected board, should have signed the Vision contract after all, and she is awaiting a written opinion from the state Attorney General.
In response to the abatements granted on Tuesday, Mr. Revere was scornful. "We're not going to be satisfied with their little abatements," he said. "A bunch of us plan to appeal to the Appellate Tax Board and bankrupt the town's legal defense funds so that the assessors have to go back to town meeting [where this can be aired]."
The Humphreys sale
Contributing to the anger in town is that some large property sales were disqualified, leading to charges that the assessors were protecting some taxpayers at the expense of others. At the assessors' meeting this week Arnie Fischer Jr., while not overstepping the boundaries of civility, was clearly scornful, the anger in his voice unmistakable. He raised questions about the sales of the Humphreys property and the Priesters Pond property in North Tisbury. When a huge sale on the Great Pond is not disqualified, and two huge sales in North Tisbury are disqualified, he says, it makes him wonder whether the assessors are "picking and choosing" which to allow. The Humphreys property is in the "neighborhood" of the chairman of the board of assessors, Michael Colaneri.
"I'm not accusing Michael of keeping his taxes low," Mr. Fischer told The Times, "but it sure looks that way."
Ms. West responded that the assessors had no choice but to disqualify the Humphreys sale. It was a combination of three parcels on one deed, including both a commercial and residential buildings, and most of the buildings were torn down after the sale. There was no way to put a value on the parcel containing the house which remains. According to Ms. West, the only properties the Humphreys property could be compared to are ones with a similar odd history. In the same way, the Priesters Pond property was subdivided and, Ms. West said, could only be compared for tax purposes to other subdivisions. Mr. Revere thought that the subdivision had been cancelled by the planning board, but Ms. West replied that that's not what the deed says.
Nevertheless, it is plain that both properties are now in use by private individuals as private estates, and while they may have been disqualified from the assessment on a technicality, their disqualification still rankles taxpayers such as Mr. Fischer.
The town's perspective
At the assessors' meeting last week, Mr. Colaneri quoted from a memo from chairman of selectman Glenn Hearn, who after a stormy selectmen's meeting on March 12, had investigated the West Tisbury assessors with DOR officials in Boston. "West Tisbury follows the process correctly," Mr. Hearn quoted state officials in his memo.
According to Ms. West, 380 taxpayers had their assessments go down this year; 930 saw increases of one percent or less; 250 face increases of one to ten percent; 62 will deal with increases between 50 and 100 percent; and 56 (mostly beach lots) will have increases of over 100 percent. Some of the beach lots belong to the Land Bank, which doesn't pay taxes anyway.
The assessors, Ms. Mitchell told the meeting last Tuesday, welcome applications for abatement. This year's total of 107 applications is in line with those in 2002, another revaluation year, when there were 102. "It's a normal part of the process," she said, "and certainly not a badge of shame."
Times contributing editor Dan Cabot is a former member of the West Tisbury personnel board and currently a member of the Up-Island Regional School committee and a trustee of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School.