West Tisbury assessor Michael Colaneri breaks long silence
The past months have been hard for Michael Colaneri, chairman of the West Tisbury board of assessors. In the controversy growing out of William Graham's appeal of his property taxes before the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB), Mr. Colaneri has been attacked in ATB testimony, in public meetings, and in the Vineyard Gazette.
The attacks on Mr. Colaneri, along with those on fellow assessors Raymond Houle and Stanton Richards and principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes, have been sharp and sometimes personal. In court and in public meetings, Mr. Graham has accused the assessors and Ms. Resendes of deliberate manipulation of the mass appraisal system for their own purposes and of criminal fraud.
According to a Vineyard Gazette report of an ATB hearing on Aug. 15 of last year, Richard Wulsin, Mr. Graham's attorney said, "This is a tax case, but it is also a fraud case. The behavior of the assessors shows that the fraud is ongoing."
Michael Colaneri is chairman of the West Tisbury assessors. Photo by Susan Safford
In meetings with the selectmen, Mr. Graham has singled out Mr. Colaneri as the reason why the matter was not settled out of court. In offering to settle the case with the selectmen, Mr. Graham did not ask for money, but asked the selectmen to "bring in a knowledgeable person and redo this system from scratch and get rid of the people who have abused it for over 20 years."
Moreover, the attacks have not come only from Mr. Graham and his lawyer. Other town residents have complained. Jonathan Revere, for one, has repeatedly called upon the selectmen to take action on violations of the state spending statutes governing the assessors. Cynthia Riggs and Arnold Fischer have opined in town meetings that the assessors should have settled the case out of court. One of the selectmen, Glenn Hearn, moved that the selectmen agree to negotiate with Mr. Graham and investigate charges against the assessors (his motion was defeated, two to one).
In a Nov. 25 editorial [No Confidence: A call for Resignations] the Vineyard Gazette said that the West Tisbury electorate was in "quiet revolt" and called upon the assessors and Ms. Resendes to resign in order to "clear the air and restore the credibility of responsible government...."
Mr. Colaneri is up for reelection in town elections this spring. Both Mr. Hearn and Mr. Revere are challenging for his seat.
Asked by The Times why he has not talked with the press about the charges against him, Mr. Colaneri replied that he has been following the assessors' policy of refraining from comment on a case in litigation, except for facts in the public record. "I've seen what talking can do, especially when litigation is involved. People can take what you say out of context or twist it to suit someone else's needs."
When pressed about the need for the assessors to communicate with the town voters, Mr. Colaneri responded that at the door to the November town meeting, the assessors distributed copies of a letter that explained their position. For the January town meeting, he had a statement prepared, he said, but decided not to read it after Alexander DeVito, a member of the finance committee, eloquently defended the assessors and called upon the voters to retroactively approve the bills for the Graham case. He said that Mr. DeVito made all the points he would have made. Mr. Colaneri noted that more than 80 percent of that town meeting supported the assessors.
Mr. Colaneri agrees to talk
Although he continues to decline to talk about the specifics of the Graham case, Mr. Colaneri did agree to talk to The Times about matters of record and in a general way about the role of the assessors and the upcoming town election.
He began by saying that it is the job of the assessors, who are elected and unpaid, to make sure that every property is assessed at 100 percent of fair cash value. If someone paid taxes on a value less than that, the rest of the town would have to pick up the discounted share of the tax burden. "We try to see that everyone gets fair, equitable treatment. The voters decide how much the town will spend, and we are supposed to see that [the cost] is divided appropriately," he explained.
He went on to say that although people blame the assessors, assessments come ultimately from the real estate market. "It's a market-driven system. Properties in town have greatly increased in value, and some properties have increased faster than others."
Out of 2,768 properties, Mr. Colaneri said, the assessors receive 25 to 50 applications for abatements every year. Of those, he said, about 75 percent are granted abatements. "A request for an abatement triggers a complete review of the process," he said. "Jo-Ann visits the property to check the facts on file, and every calculation is rechecked. If there is an error, it is corrected. If there is a difference of opinion, sometimes a compromise can be reached, if it is within 10 percent, more or less, of the original assessment. In Mr. Graham's case, we were much too far apart." Mr. Graham had received an abatement from the assessors, but for less than he thought fair.
For a few taxpayers (there were five last year), the problem cannot be resolved by the assessors. "Reasonable people can disagree," Mr. Colaneri explained. In that case, the taxpayer has the option of appealing to the ATB, a step to which Mr. Colaneri does not object. "It's their right," he said. "That's what the ATB is there for." He pointed out that the town has invariably prevailed in cases before the ATB.
Have the assessors ever agreed to settle a case after it went to the ATB? In one or two cases, he said, a case has been settled after it has been filed with the ATB but before it went to trial. The board has never settled a case after it has gone to trial: "At that point, it's up to the ATB to decide what's fair."
The ATB process has never been as costly to the town as it is in the Graham case, because cases are usually heard in two to five days. The Graham case took 36 days, a state record for a personal property trial.
Taxing the exempt?
Mr. Graham told the West Tisbury selectmen that if he loses before the ATB, he will appeal to the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, and he cited a case in which the Land Bank lost an appeal to the ATB but won in appeals court. Mr. Colaneri was happy to speak about that case.
"First of all, we never sent a tax bill to the Land Bank," he said. "The Land Bank purchased a property in the middle of the year. The town sent a tax bill to the owner of record on Jan. 1 [the previous owner]. That's standard practice. The owner sent the bill to the Land Bank. If you buy a house in the middle of a year, at closing you make sure that all the old and new owners' obligations are settled up - right down to half a tank of heating oil in the basement." However, the Land Bank had neglected to ask that money for taxes be placed in escrow. Mr. Colaneri said that the assessors believed that the taxes for the first half of the year, when the Land Bank did not own the property, should have been part of the settlement and were still due to the town. The Land Bank appealed to the ATB, and the ATB agreed with the assessors. However, the appeals court, looking only at the rule that the Land Bank is exempt from taxes, overturned the ATB's ruling.
Regarding a related complaint, Mr. Colaneri disputed the statement, made by Arnold Fischer at the January town meeting, that the assessors had sent the Agricultural Society a tax bill. "We never sent the Agricultural Society a tax bill," he stated categorically. After the society bought the new Ag Hall property from the Woods family, Ms. Resendes pointed out to the society that until they began to use the land for some agricultural purpose, state law required them to pay taxes. The society moved a shed to the property, and the assessors, perhaps stretching the point, decided to consider that an agricultural use, and a tax bill was never sent.
In the debates spawned by the Graham case, the assessors, and in particular the principal assessor, Ms. Resendes, have been accused of being arbitrary and arrogant, of being insensitive to taxpayers who come to the office, and of declining to explain assessments on the grounds that the mass appraisal system is too complicated to explain. Mr. Colaneri said that he too has heard the criticisms. While he conceded that neither he nor Ms. Resendes is "warm and fuzzy," he went on to explain that some of the criticism is coming from "people who don't like to hear no from the bureaucracy."
Ms. Resendes is a bureaucrat, Mr. Colaneri explained, because that's what the job needs. She is an authority on the mass appraisal system. "She is the best of the best." He pointed out that she has been the chairman of the all-Island assessors group, and is a person other assessors turn to when they can't answer questions about the law. "Whatever you might say about Jo-Ann," he says, "if you know her, you know she doesn't have a dishonest bone in her body."
The mass appraisal system is complicated, he conceded, and perhaps Ms. Resendes may have been guilty of avoiding a complicated explanation when she knew that no change could ever be possible in a particular case. But he went on to say to anyone who might complain about mistreatment, "If you have a problem with the assessors' office, call me. I don't have an unlisted number - it's in the phone book."
Why run for reelection?
People have asked him, Mr. Colaneri said, why he would want to stand for reelection when he is now taking so much grief. He answers, "Because for more than 30 years, I haven't gotten grief. I'm proud of what I and the other assessors have done for the town."
Mr. Colaneri, a physician's assistant at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, said that when he was first elected to the board, it was because the town fathers of the day (John Whiting, Everett Whiting, Daniel Manter, and Nelson Bryant) told him that the town needed young people to be part of town government. Thirty years old and just back from serving in Vietnam ("and lucky to be back"), he decided to take their advice. In addition to being an assessor, he has also served on the school committee and served for 20 years on the Martha's Vineyard Commission, all while holding a full-time job.
In the time Mr. Colaneri has been an assessor, he points out, the town has grown from 530 dwellings to almost 2,000, and from a total assessed value of $4.9 million to $2.2 billion. The assessors' job has grown from a set of three-by-five cards in a file box to a complicated, computerized method using advanced software to comply with the mass appraisal system required by Massachusetts law. Anyone with an internet access can quickly find his own assessment file (or his neighbor's) on the Vision Appraisal web site. Mr. Colaneri is proud of the expansion and modernization of the assessors' office.
What would he say to voters about the recent controversy? "Don't judge me or measure me by one situation that's happening now. My record shows that I've used good judgment over more than 30 years of service to the town."