WILLIAMSTOWN — It took more than twice the time and cost less than half as much, but the town’s latest reappraisal has generated just about the same amount of heartburn as the last one.
As Friday’s deadline approached, roughly 100 property owners had filed written grievances complaining their properties aren’t worth what local listers claim they are following a two-and-a-half-year in-house process.
That’s about the same number of grievances that were filed in the wake of the last town-wide reappraisal 14 years ago. In 2005, roughly 100 of Williamstown’s nearly 1,600 property owners challenged their assessments.
Hours before Friday’s deadline, Assessor Terry Knight said grievance hearings, which started earlier in the week and will resume on Monday, were progressing though no decisions have been made and won’t be until the hearing process is complete.
“We want to be here for the people and we think we have been,” she said. “That doesn’t mean everyone will be happy with what we decide.”
Not all property owners who submitted written grievances have requested a hearing, and Knight said some would likely rely on their written submissions.
Through the first three days of hearings, Knight said the listers have met with more than 50 property owners as part of a process she expects will take a few more days to wrap up.
Once the hearings are done, she said listers will consider each grievance and decide whether to adjust the value that was included in a recently distributed reappraisal booklet and would be used to calculate tax bills for the fiscal year that started last month.
Listers won’t necessarily have the last word. Property owners dissatisfied with the results of their grievance hearings can appeal to the local Board of Civil Authority as part of a separate process that will involve inspections and a second round of hearings.
Town Clerk Barbara Graham has arranged a Sept. 5 training for the board because almost all of its members have been elected since 2005.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had to do this,” she said.
It has, agreed Knight, who said that had started to show when the reappraisal was launched more than two years ago.
Knight said some eye-popping sales, and in some cases the absence of sales, were cause for concern. Some older buildings weren’t moving, while others were fetching far more than their appraised value.
In a town with no zoning and no requirement to obtain building permits for interior renovations, 14 years is a lot of time for home improvement projects to go undetected. It is also a lot of time for a building in need of attention to go from bad to worse if it is neglected.
Absent a reappraisal, Knight, who has assisted with four of them in Williamstown over the last 34 years, detecting and correcting those inequities is virtually impossible.
Your house doesn’t look any different on the outside looking in when you completely renovate your kitchen, but Knight said the town has no way of tracking those projects which can significantly increase the value of a home.
“That’s what a reappraisal is for,” she said.
While 14 years may seem like a long time to wait between reappraisals, it isn’t in Williamstown, where the reappraisal completed in 2005 followed one that was finished in 1992.
A private firm was given one year to conduct the last reappraisal and paid more than $140,000 for the work. Knight said the in-house version has cost roughly $60,000 even if it has taken longer than she had hoped.
Weather and scheduling were both factors and while listers tried to get into every property during the data-collection phase of the project, they weren’t always successful.
“It took a lot longer than I expected,” she said.
There wasn’t really a rush.
When the reappraisal started, properties in Williamstown were still assessed at nearly 90% of fair market value, according to the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA). During the course of the reappraisal, Williamstown’s CLA has dipped down to 87.17, but will soon shoot up above 100% as part of a process that is expected to boost the Grand List by about 25%.
Before the Grand List can be finalized and the tax rate set, Knight said the grievances must be resolved. That’s one of the reasons she didn’t wait for Friday’s deadline to start hearing the grievances.
Williamstown pays its property taxes in one annual installment that is due on Nov. 15 and while the town technically has until Oct. 15 to mail tax bills, Knight isn’t interested in waiting until the last minute.
Though not everyone’s tax bills will increase as a result of the reappraisal, many will and Knight said the sooner property owners have that information the better. That is particularly true of those homeowners who neglected to file their Vermont homestead declarations when doing their state income taxes earlier this year. The deadline for filing those documents is Oct. 15 and, in some cases, receiving a property tax bill supplies a needed reminder.
Knight said she’ll rest easier when the reappraisal is finished, tax bills are in the mail and everything is as it was.
“We’ll just go back to being a town without zoning,” she said.