Familiar foes return to West Tisbury assessor race
In the past year the three-member West Tisbury board of assessors emerged from two separate legal challenges with significant legal victories from the Massachusetts Appellate Tax board.
In March, the tax board ruled in favor of the West Tisbury assessors and against Dr. Timothy and Ellen Guiney, in an appeal of the town's multi-million dollar real estate valuation of the couple's north shore property, near Paul's Point.
Last June the board ruled in favor of the assessors in a bruising, high-profile battle with West Tisbury resident William W. Graham, who had appealed his 2003 and 2004 assessments to the tax board, claiming that the town's assessments and the methodology used to arrive at the numbers were unfair, even improper.
Over the course of the legal battles, West Tisbury's principal assessor, Jo-Ann Resendes, was the subject of much criticism, some of which questioned her integrity and competence.
On April 12, Jonathan Revere, a sharp critic of the board of assessors, will challenge incumbent Cynthia Mitchell for a three-year term on the board. Both candidates are familiar figures on the town's political landscape.
Ms. Mitchell was a selectman for 12 years until 2002, and town treasurer for 17 years, until 2003, when she resigned to become the full-time director of Island Health, Inc. In a special election last May, Ms. Mitchell defeated Cynthia
Riggs for an 11-month term on the board of assessors, to fill the remaining term of long-serving assessor Raymond Houle, who resigned in February 2006.
Mr. Revere is a graduate of Harvard College and a consultant in technology transfer, the buying, selling, and investing in environmental technologies.
This will be Mr. Revere's third try for a seat on the board of assessors. He was also an unsuccessful candidate for selectman in 1999 and 2000.
Mr. Revere takes a keen interest in town and Island political and cultural affairs. In addition to his other production credits, he regularly video-tapes selectmen's meetings in Chilmark and West Tisbury for the local government cable channel.
This week The Times asked both candidates to respond by e-mail to a series of questions in no more than 450 words.
1. West Tisbury's assessors have been in the eye of the storm for a couple of years now, but they've endured and even quieted some of their critics with a record of success before the state Appellate Tax Board. How might the assessors do a better job of explaining what they do and how they do it to taxpayers and voters? Are there data, for instance, about changing land values generally, changing values in parts of town, factors that contribute to the assessors' decisions on property values, size and number of abatements each year - that should be reported to voters regularly to help them better understand the forces at work on property values and consequently, on their tax bills?
Ms. Mitchell: Much of West Tisbury, like other towns on the Vineyard, is a far cry from the "cookie-cutter" neighborhood/development pattern for which the state's mass appraisal valuation system is best suited. Yet we are required to fit our unique island communities into the identical frame.
How we do this has been a hot topic recently, and the West Tisbury assessors are well advised to find a way to successfully describe it to taxpayers.
When I was appointed to the board in March of 2006, I committed to doing precisely that and in May of last year, we held the first of what will be, at the very least, an annual forum for such purposes. The topics we covered were assessing basics, the property record card (all the data on a given parcel), an overview of the mass appraisal system and general concerns raised by the Graham appellate tax board case. (At that time, we had yet to learn that the Town would prevail overwhelmingly in that case.)
We plan another session for this May to go into deeper detail about neighborhood and condition factors, among other topics. One drawback is that there are so many factors and so much data that it can be overwhelming and confusing, not to mention really boring. I would love to see us identify the key indicators that could form the basis for, say, a simple annual report to taxpayers that would paint a picture that is readily understood by the average property-owner and easy to update and compare year to year. The report could be posted on the Town's web site, presented annually in a forum with questions and answers, and printed as a handout.
This will require distilling lots of information, and designing it will be a challenge, but potentially well worth the effort.
Mr. Revere: The Assessors should - no, must - make available all data that can help taxpayers understand how their taxes are calculated. In addition to those listed in your question, if elected I promise to add: West Tisbury's position in a comprehensive survey of the 23 towns in the Cape and Islands which will include a) the choice and use of specific "mass appraisal" consultants and legal counsel; compliance with the Massachusetts General Laws pertaining to Boards of Assessors and to the procurement of service contracts; and taxpayers' options for seeking abatements, including a thorough discussion of the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board and the local alternative of bringing abatement appeals before the County Commissioners.
In addition, I will work as hard as I can to minimize the Assessors' preference for secrecy in its dealings with the public; to ensure that disproportionate assessment is eliminated; to provide taxpayers with clear, complete guidelines covering all aspects of the hideously complicated assessment process; and to restore an atmosphere of civility and helpfulness to the Assessors' office which has been missing for a long time.
2. Talk about the effect of conservation land, public or private, including development rights sales and conservation restrictions, on the value of West Tisbury real estate. Has the value of land taken off the tax rolls been offset by increases in the value of remaining taxable property, undeveloped or not?
Ms. Mitchell: West Tisbury, of all of the Vineyard towns, has the highest percentage of tax-exempt property: 14.5 percent of West Tisbury's total Fiscal Year 2007 value is exempt, compared to 8.63 percent for Aquinnah, 5.22 percent for Chilmark, 8.11 percent for Edgartown, 7.75 percent Oak Bluffs and 6.29 percent for Tisbury.
West Tisbury property that yields partial or no tax revenue is either government-owned - state, town, county (including regional housing authority); conservation-owned (Nature Conservancy, Polly Hill, Sheriffs Meadow, Trustees of Reservations, MV Land Bank); otherwise exempted (church/religious, Ag Society, Garden Club, Preservation Trust, Wampanoag Tribe, Youth Hostel, etc.); and otherwise restricted (agricultural/forest/recreational, conservation).
The value of the land removed from the tax rolls is not appreciably offset by increases in the remaining taxable property. (Those properties abutting conservation areas are arguably worth a little more than if they didn't, but not enough to make up the difference).
But there is a significant effect on taxes. For example, the current West Tisbury tax rate is $4.38. If $700,000 is the typical year-round taxpayer's assessment, the resulting tax bill is $3,066.00.
If, like Chilmark, only 5.22 percent (instead of 14.5 percent) of our real estate was tax-exempt, our current tax rate would instead be $3.94 and the typical year-round resident's tax bill would be $2,758 - a difference of $308.00 per year.
However, it is also argued, with supporting data, that conservation and other tax-exempt land have the effect of reducing future development and demand on town services, thereby saving budget dollars (the other variable in the equation).
Mr. Revere: Study after study, in all parts of the United States, has proven that conservation land - even when removed entirely from the tax rolls, as we find with Land Bank properties - tends to lower a town's need for tax revenue to provide services and infrastructure. Conservation land does not fill the schools, or force water and wastewater facilities, or expand police and fire departments. We're blessed in West Tisbury to have more than 40 percent of the town in permanent conservation; we would be facing truly staggering taxes if we didn't.