The heartburn in West Tisbury over the tri ennial real estate revaluation, which hit riparian owners on the north and south shore with increased assessments of two, three, and four times their previous values, is not likely to quiet down any time soon.
Our three elected assessors, who bear the major responsibility for this gut-wrenching mess, don’t seem to understand that 107 applications for abatements in one year signals a level of discontent and political turmoil they must confront in ways beyond the abatement process itself.
This isn’t simply a case of whiny rich people who don’t want to ante up, as has been not so subtly suggested in some quarters of town. What the assessors have done in this latest revaluation sets a new precedent of unfairness that threatens to change the demographics of our town and can potentially affect anyone regardless of their location or resources.
If some person with very deep pockets decides to buy your neighboring property, or even a property in your assessment “neighborhood,” for two or three times its assessed value, that sale, unless excluded by the assessors, goes into the maw of Vision Appraisal’s computers and results in your assessment being raised by multiples as well. The guiding principle is that a “market” sale so high must signal that all the properties in that or similar “neighborhoods” are undervalued. So now when your tax bill arrives, your $4,000 annual tax tab suddenly jumps to $12,000, and you think there has to be a mistake. Of course, if you can’t pay the egregiously higher amount, what you have received from the assessors is essentially an eviction notice.
The assessors are hanging their hats, and their reputations, on the boutique sale of six acres of land on the Tisbury Great Pond. The rich owner sold it to someone else, with billions of dollars, for more than $18 million. Price was clearly no object. How that qualifies as a legitimate market sale is a mystery. Moreover, the land was probably not on the market at all, meaning you and I couldn’t have made an offer if we wanted to because we didn’t know it was for sale.
Most likely this was a private deal between two super-rich individuals, which disqualifies it for consideration in an annual or triennial revaluation, but we don’t know the details because of a confidentiality agreement between the seller, buyer, and broker. On what basis the assessors allowed this sale to be included in the revaluation, and thereby raising assessments on riparian property to stratospheric heights, is a question they should be asked, asked again, and made to answer in a clear and open manner.
Tragically, some property owners whose roots in town are deep, but who aren’t particularly wealthy — except for what they could hypothetically (emphasizing the hypothetical part) sell their land for — now have to at least consider selling out in order not to go bankrupt trying to pay tens of thousands in increased taxes. How do such circumstances not destroy the fiber of a community?
There must be something wrong, you cry. And there is. Any assessment system that delivers such outrageous results is fundamentally flawed. Exactly what the flaws are takes a little searching. The simple answer is that the assessors have their reasons, which somehow involve milking dry the putative “cash cows,” as one former town official described wealthy landowners in our town. But this latest herd of cows has less cash, and won’t be milked easily.
So far, the assessors claim they are only doing what the state requires, and accepting what Vision’s approved methodology produces. The state Department of Revenue, for its part, says that the assessors have a great deal of discretion in eliminating non-market sales, or anomalously high or low sales, and further, that the assessors should provide Vision with guidelines for its formulas. Vision says it’s only doing what the assessors tell them to do within the state guidelines. In other words, all three parties are pointing at the other two to explain their actions. So much for accountability.
Actually a better place to start looking for answers is in the town of Chilmark, our western neighbor. Chilmark has similar riparian properties, has to do a revaluation every three years — that is state law — but doesn’t have any of the eye-popping increases and high number of abatement applications that West Tisbury has. Why not? Because Chilmark does not use Vision Appraisal, does all its assessment work between revaluations in-house, with the assessors making site visits themselves every Thursday morning (West Tisbury hires staff to do this work.) It also has only three assessment “neighborhoods” as opposed to West Tisbury’s 29. That’s right, 29!
Notably, Chilmark assessors have no legal line in their budget. The West Tisbury assessors, because of their many past legal firestorms, have $45,000 a year.
Chilmark hires an outside consultant to do their triennial revaluation, as most towns do, and actually gets bids from a variety of accredited consultants, other than Vision, after they send out their request for proposal. In other words, they have a choice.
In West Tisbury only Vision bids, and the only time another company has done any revaluation work in town — the personal property component — was when Vision chose not to bid on that small portion of work.
So now West Tisbury’s taxpayers will have to pay for the assessors to defend themselves against the complaints of the aggrieved taxpayers, and the aggrieved taxpayers will have to pay their attorneys to advance their cases against the assessors. Ultimately, when the revaluation is thrown out, as it must be, the refunds will also be paid for by the taxpayers.
And how does West Tisbury come out of all this needless expense any better? Talk about heartburn.
Joan Ames is a West Tisbury taxpayer.