Selectman Manter says he'll wait for court decision
Following are excerpts of chairman Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter's opening remarks at a special meeting of the West Tisbury selectmen with William Graham on Dec. 17.
In the letter we received from Mr. Graham on Oct. 5, he mentions a couple of times, "The system needs fixing," and he's asking us to fix the flaws in the mass appraisal system as it has been implemented in the town of West Tisbury. To me, it has not been proven yet that the system is flawed and needs fixing, as it has been implemented in the town of West Tisbury. I believe making judgments of what we've read in the papers is hearsay at best, and to rely on transcripts to make a decision on a pending case would be a mistake. I've read a lot of court decisions in my career, more than most I would assume, and it is the decisions signed by a judge or judges, depending on what court it comes from, that I spend my time reading. I don't believe an attorney today would try to use a transcript in court proceeding in a case that hasn't been decided. I don't think the judge would think too much of it.
Mr. Graham refers to the statements in the transcripts as fact. I'll agree to one thing: the statements are in fact part of the transcript. But how those statements he quotes, plus all the other evidence, and how that applies to assessing property in the town of West Tisbury is yet to be decided. He says [indicating the selectmen's table], "You know a table's a table." But one could also call it a big desk - you know it has drawers and stuff - so we could argue a long time. Who's right? I'm just trying to put it in perspective.
I'd like to take a few minutes to talk about our board of assessors. Michael, Ray, and Stan have been on the board a long time, doing the job assessors do.... One of the things they do is hearing a few appeals to the Appellate Tax Board, which is part of the process property owners are entitled to. I respect and support that process, and Mr. Graham has a right to exercise that process and follow it, which he has done.... The tax appellate board can hear cases from anybody, whether they pay $250,000 a year in taxes or $250 a year in taxes. I respect that. I wish the case hadn't cost us so much, but the process is there, and the people are following it, and that's their right. This case is high-profile and very expensive, but this single incident should not have us lose sight on the years of hard work and dedication the three assessors have given us.
A few minutes to talk about Jo-Ann.... She's been working with us since 1985, serving the town faithfully. She's Massachusetts-accredited [as] an assessor. She requires continuing education to maintain that certification [and] must be recertified every three years to maintain that accreditation. She knows more about the property in town than some of its owners. She's been to every home and house in town, I believe. I've lived here all my life, and Jo-Ann knows more about the property and layout of the town than I do. I wonder if those now criticizing her work have these types of credentials and experience.
There are about 2,700 pieces of property in town that Jo-Ann and her assistants have to keep track of and constantly update as pieces are sold, buildings or additions go up, subdivisions - whatever it may be. Of these 2,700 pieces of property this year, few file for abatements. Most of them are taken care of through that process. Even fewer of the applicants are not resolved [and] go to the Appellate Tax Board. Approximately 10 or 12 of those pieces of property are in that area with the tax abatement process and may or may not be in the tax appellate court. Mr. Graham is one of those; he happens to have 7 of those 10 or 12 pieces of property. If you look at 10 or 12 pieces of property out of 2,700, I'm not a mathematician, but I believe that's probably a low percentage.
Who hasn't been in the assessors' office to look at the maps? You know, to see what your property looks like? Maybe what your neighbor's property looks like? We all use her records to contact abutters for applying for permits to the town that requires notification, board of appeals purposes, etc. The fire, EMTs, and police rely heavily on those maps to find you, believe me. Who hasn't found those records professionally kept and up to date? Over the years when I've had an emergency, to contact a property owner of a summer residence, it's the assessors' records that I depend on. If I really want to know something about a piece of property in town that I can't figure out on my own, I ask Jo-Ann. She'll know the answer....
To say that the town's assessors' department is under the microscope right now would be an understatement. The Appellate Tax Board is looking at all the issues Mr. Graham has brought to our attention. I think that is where those issues should remain until they are decided by the people who are in charge of making those decisions in this matter, not the board of selectmen.
I would also ask that our good townspeople stop passing judgment on this case from what you read in the newspapers, see on TV, or talk about in your kitchens. You only hear a small portion of the evidence.
And I think it is out of line for people to be asking for the assessors to resign, or the principal assessor. There are lots of allegations, but no decisions have been made that they've done anything wrong. What happened to the good old saying, "Innocent until proven guilty"? This case is being watched by every city and town across the state, and I'm sure the Department of Revenue is watching it closely, and if they thought the board of assessors were acting outrageously, they could step in at any time and (I believe) remove them from office. I stand behind all our hardworking board and committee members and town employees. I commend them for their commitment and excellent work, even as this particular issue takes a toll on them.
Mr. Graham seems to want another trial with the board of selectmen, rather than talking about settling. He wants to bring up all the issues again that he's brought up before the Appellate Tax Board. That does not make sense to me. What does make sense to me is this: when the decision comes down, I will examine it, and I'll reserve my judgment on Mike, Stan, and Ray, and Jo-Ann, until then.