West Tisbury assessors upheld
State tax board finds for town against Bill Graham
In an overwhelming victory for the West Tisbury assessors, the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB) ruled on Tuesday that William Graham's property tax assessments for 2003 and 2004 were 99 percent accurate.
Mr. Graham was appealing his 2003 and 2004 assessments to the ATB, claiming that the town's assessments were unfair. He owns seven properties totaling 235 acres off Lambert's Cove Road, assessed at $51,116,700. By Mr. Graham's calculations, his properties were worth only $20,240,000. The trial took up 36 days, the longest-running residential case in the history of the ATB.
In Tuesday's verdict, the ATB made no change in five of the assessments and reduced two others $528,500, reducing Mr. Graham's overall assessments to $50,588,200 - a one percent change.
Ellen Hutchinson, attorney for the board of assessors, told The Times that she is ecstatic. Such a one-sided ruling is unusual in ATB decisions. "It's just shy of a total vindication of the town," she said.
The heart of Mr. Graham's case, as he explained it in meetings with the selectmen, was to expose "flaws in the mass appraisal system as it has been implemented in West Tisbury." He several times offered to drop his case against the town if the town would "fix the flaws."
Michael Colaneri, chairman of the board of assessors, expressed satisfaction at the ruling, but cautioned that the whole picture won't be known until the ATB makes its complete report in six to eight months. However he conceded that the dollar amounts suggest that West Tisbury's assessments are not flawed. A complete statement by the board of assessors appears on Page 26.
By Mr. Graham's accounting, his overpayments for 2003 and 2004 property taxes totaled $319,164. The ATB ruled that Mr. Graham is due a refund of $2,616 for 2003 and $2,813 for 2004. In meetings last winter, Mr. Graham told the selectmen that he will not seek to recover any money awarded by the courts.
Mr. Graham did not return telephone messages left Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning by a Times reporter. Mr. Graham did speak to the Boston Globe. The Globe reported yesterday that Mr. Graham said that he never had much confidence in the ATB and planned to appeal.
The town's defense of its assessors, which cost more than $200,000, sharply divided the board of selectmen, produced a string of accusations against the assessors, resulted in acerbic special town meetings, and figured prominently in town elections this spring.
John Early, chairman of the West Tisbury selectmen, commented, "[The ATB ruling] is very good news for the town and for the profession of assessing everywhere in the Commonwealth. It totally vindicates the practices of the West Tisbury board of assessors."
Selectman Glenn Hearn, a critic of the assessors' office, was less enthusiastic. "I'm not surprised the ATB thinks Graham's property is worth $50 million," he said, "but I'm very interested to see what the fact report says." Mr. Hearn praised the dialog that resulted from the case. "A lot has come up in the past year, and the assessors have responded, which is good." However, he went on to say that he thinks there are still improvements to be made, citing as an example written definitions and maps of the "neighborhood factor," places that share a common assessment coefficient.
It is possible that Mr. Graham will appeal the ATB's ruling to Massachusetts Superior Court. In a letter to the West Tisbury selectmen and in meetings with them, Mr. Graham said that if the ruling went against him, he planned to appeal and was confident that he would prevail at the higher court.
According to Ms. Hutchinson, any appeal would have to be based on the ATB's reasons for its decision. Since a full explanation of the ATB's reasoning will be issued in a findings report in six to eight months, it will be that long before Mr. Graham can make a decision whether to appeal. "This ruling is the 'what' but not the 'why,'" she explained.
This time last year, West Tisbury's principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes, who along with Mr. Colaneri bore the brunt of Mr. Graham's criticism, was making plans to spend the Fourth of July holiday in Boston in order to be available to testify the next morning before the ATB. Yesterday, Ms. Resendes, who is on vacation, was anticipating a more enjoyable holiday. In a telephone conversation, Ms. Resendes said that while the specifics of the ATB decision would not be known for many months, this week's ATB decision was a good outcome for the town and the board.
"I think it is a gratifying decision for the board," said Ms. Resendes. "It supports our belief that we have been doing things properly and correctly all along and been assessing property fairly."
Ms. Resendes said no one ever expected the case to take as long as it has, and she described it as a learning experience for herself and the board. "As careful as we have tried to be in the past to do things properly, we are going to be even more careful," she said.
She added, "The assessors have always tried to do things correctly and treat people fairly and come up with equitable assessments, and we will continue to do that."
Over the course of the last 14 months, Mr. Graham and his representatives assailed Ms Resendes' professionalism and character and accused her of fabricating records. The Vineyard Gazette in a Nov. 25 editorial [No Confidence: A call for Resignations] called upon Ms. Resendes to resign in order to "clear the air and restore the credibility of responsible government."
Speaking in reserved tones, Ms. Resendes, whom associates describe as a very private person, said it has been hard to be in the center of a very long and public storm and read some of the things written about her.
"It is very difficult to be in the focus of the news and to see your name in the paper weekly for quite a while," she said "It has brought a great deal of focus on the assessing department, which is sometimes difficult to deal with."
She added, "I would thank everyone who has been supportive throughout this whole process."
At one point in the long-running case, town officials and residents balked at paying all of the legal bills associated with expert testimony before the ATB submitted by Kevin Comer, president of Vision Appraisal Technologies, a consulting company that assists West Tisbury and several other Island towns in their triennial re-evaluation.
Mr. Comer, at a meeting with selectmen late last year, offered to settle for $12,000 Vision's bill of $31,000 for work in the Graham case. That bill and several others under consideration on Jan. 17 had been contracted without an appropriation from the taxpayers, and the town was technically entitled not to pay them.
Yesterday, Mr. Comer said his company was extremely happy with the decision and what would hopefully be the end of the case. "Although I know that everyone does not agree when it comes to property values, it does show that both Vision and the Assessors Office used the market information available in a proper way and used professional and appropriate techniques in arriving at the values," said Mr. Comer. "I also feel we did everything we could for the Town of West Tisbury in support of the values, whether it was appreciated or not."