Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo
The Rock of Ages manufacturing facility in Barre Town is among 22 industrial properties involved in a tax dispute that goes to trial this week.
BARRE TOWN — A property tax dispute between the town and its largest taxpayer will be the subject of a two-day trial at the superior courthouse in Montpelier this week.
It has taken more than three years, featured at least one aborted attempt at a mediated settlement, and has been marked by an occasional flurry of pretrial motions, but an appeal filed on behalf of Rock of Ages Corporation on Oct. 28, 2009, is finally ready to be heard Wednesday.
It isn’t an average tax appeal because Rock of Ages isn’t an average property owner.
The appeal involves 22 separate industrial properties. The value of more than 1,100 acres of land — including the massive E.L. Smith Quarry — is in dispute. So is the value of Rock of Ages’ 158,000-square-foot manufacturing plant, its state-of-the-art visitors’ center, the building where the company produces press rolls and other precision products, and several other company-owned structures.
What’s it all worth?
That depends on who you ask.
When veteran Assessor Joe Levesque took a stab at providing an answer back in 2009, he settled on $19,636,100 as a collective value for the properties.
Rock Ages promptly filed a grievance; Levesque sharpened his pencil and trimmed nearly $5 million from his earlier assessment, before settling on $14,771,000 as the combined values of the properties.
That isn’t within $8.5 million of what Rock of Ages officials claim the company’s properties in Barre Town are worth. Their estimate, $6,361,247, was outlined in minute detail in a four-volume appraisal that was presented to the town’s Board of Civil Authority when Rock of Ages first appealed Levesque’s determination in 2009. Two hearings and several hours later the board denied Rock of Ages’ appeal with a motion that was hardly a full-throated vote of confidence in Levesque.
“…(T)here are too many questions which have arisen regarding which valuation method should be used to determine ‘fair market value,’” the board concluded in deciding the matter.
“They punted,” Town Manager Carl Rogers said Friday, referring to the decision that triggered the appeal that will be heard by Superior Court Judge Robert Bent starting Wednesday.
Bent is expected to hear from Levesque, George Silver, the Burlington real estate appraiser hired by Rock of Ages, Randy Mulligan, a Hyde Park appraiser hired by the town to critique Silver’s work, and Jeffrey Kern of Resource Technologies Corporation — an independent appraisal firm from Pennsylvania that was hired by the town to assess the fair market value of the property that Rock of Ages owns.
Both sides are rolling the dice by going to court. Bent could decide Levesque was closer to right when he originally pegged the value of Rock of Ages’ Barre Town property at nearly $20 million, or he could decide Rock of Ages is overestimating its value.
“There’s risk for both sides,” Rogers said.
According to Rogers, Rock of Ages has been paying taxes based on the disputed assessments since 2009 and the company is probably banking on the likelihood Bent will settle on a value that exceeds the one that was set by Levesque and upheld by the board of civil authority.
It is a strategy that has paid off for Rock of Ages before, though a reappraisal-related tax appeal the company filed in 2004 never actually made it to trial.
That appeal involved the value — roughly $8.2 million — that Levesque placed on Rock of Ages’ main manufacturing plant.
With the appeal still pending in 2006, Rock of Ages and the town agreed to avoid going to court in favor of putting the dispute in the hands of an independent appraiser with the understanding they would accept his finding provided it fell somewhere between the manufacturing plant’s pre-reappraisal value of $3.7 million and $7 million. The latter figure represented something of a concession from the town.
Town officials were stunned when the appraisal came back at $2.2 million — $6 million less than the figure set by Levesque.
In order to resolve the appeal Rock of Ages, which had been paying taxes on the disputed assessment for two years, received a credit against its property tax bill that was spread out over two years.
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