Sticker Shock in West Tisbury

Staggering increases in property taxes in some areas of West Tisbury this year have come as a blow to residents, some of whom have seen their tax bills more than double. The increases put enormous pressure on people who own valuable property but are not wealthy — including some property owners on the Tisbury Great Pond, many of whom have held property in their family for generations.

So the questions are coming fast and furious from a group of taxpayers who want to know how this happened.

It is to the credit of the West Tisbury assessors that they called in Stephen Ferreira, a senior project manager for Vision Appraisal Technology, the Northboro company the town contracts with to prepare its valuations, to answer questions and explain the process of tax assessments last week.

What Mr. Ferreira demonstrated is that the process is far from transparent. Market sales, twenty five different neighborhoods, condition factors, sales ratios — it is complicated work indeed, and by the end of the session there remained many more questions than answers.

Ron Mechur, a seasoned Island appraiser who is a former Oak Bluffs assessor and represents two town taxpayers who are appealing their assessments, zeroed in on what he called boutique sales — extraordinarily high property transactions that typically take place between two wealthy people, such as a single sale on the Tisbury Great Pond two years ago. These sales, which may not be strictly arm’s length — in some instances the property that changes hands was never on the market — may be skewing assessments, Mr. Mechur said.

Mr. Ferreira did not deny the problem, but in so many words he said the assessors’ hands are tied.

He is wrong about this. The assessors have the discretion to throw out any sales that they consider anomalies. The problem that seems to be going on in West Tisbury right now is no one wants to take responsibility for the problem. The assessors say they rely on Vision; Vision says it relies on information from the town. It’s a little like the puppy chasing her tail.

It is interesting to note that the neighboring town of Chilmark, a similar town where property values are among the highest in the commonwealth, has experienced none of the same problems as West Tisbury with extreme spikes in property taxes in certain areas of town. There is one variable: Chilmark still keeps most of its assessing work in-house and does not contract with Vision.

But Mr. Ferreira was right about another thing: the burden to prove assessing errors or disproportionate assessment falls on the taxpayer.

At this juncture, it is clear that West Tisbury could benefit from an independent, townwide study of its property tax assessments. And the cost of such a study will have to be paid by the private citizens who have raised these important questions.

Larry Schubert, a West Tisbury property owner whose tax bill has not gone up but who is concerned that others in his town may be shouldering too much of the burden, offered an apt reminder when he read aloud that famous quote from the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”