Barrington council pushing for annual assessments

Resident says process needs to treat all people equally

By Josh Bickford
Posted 2/20/20

The Barrington Town Council recently passed a resolution asking the state's general assembly to grant cities and towns the power to assess property values annually, instead of once every three …

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Barrington council pushing for annual assessments

Resident says process needs to treat all people equally

Posted

The Barrington Town Council recently passed a resolution asking the state's general assembly to grant cities and towns the power to assess property values annually, instead of once every three years.

The unanimous vote followed a discussion — and occasional debate — between council member Steve Boyajian and resident Charlie Payne. 

Mr. Boyajian said the town was experiencing a problem with under-assessed properties and called for immediate attention from the general assembly. Mr. Boyajian said he did not want include specific limitations within the resolution: "… I think whatever we need to do with this resolution, we don't need to dwell on the specifics."

Mr. Payne, who has helped organize the group Barrington Citizens for Taxation Integrity, agreed with many of the points made by Mr. Boyajian but wanted to ensure that the resolution specified that the annual assessments be conducted town-wide and were equitable for all property owners.

"Statistical revaluation, that's perfectly OK," Mr. Payne said. "But a random sales-chasing is the worst way to take care of it."

Mr. Payne is referring to the town's recent policy shift in property assessments. Normally, there is a town-wide revaluation every three years, which uses a number of factors when determining a property's value.

But at the end of 2018, the town's tax assessor, Michael Minardi, relying on a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling, altered the approach, changing the assessments for homes sold in 2018 to match their sales prices. 

The change impacted hundreds of residents, and recently, the issue landed in front of the town's Board of Assessment Review. On Jan. 22, the BAR, hearing its first group of residents appealing their "sales price" assessments, voted 3-0 to remove the 2018 assessments and return those figures to 2017 values, "this will allow the property to be assessed consistently with other similar properties" maintaining equating and uniformity, stated the board.

Council discussion

Council member Jacob Brier was the first to speak on the resolution, asking who had drafted it.

No other council member seemed to have an answer, and even the town's attorney, Michael Ursillo, was at a loss. 

"I don't recognize it," Mr. Ursillo said. "I'm looking at the tracking at the bottom, which shows where the language came from, this is not my office's tracking."

Mr. Brier asked who had requested the resolution to be drafted. Council president Michael Carroll said he thought Mr. Brier had requested it.

"No," Mr. Brier said. 

Barrington Town Manager Jim Cunha said there had been a prior discussion about the town's recent situation with assessments, and a reference to how Massachusetts handles it. He said towns in Massachusetts conduct statistical revaluations every year. Mr. Cunha said the cost would be equivalent to what RI towns pay to have revaluations completed once every three years.

Mr. Carroll said he could not recall who ordered the resolution to be drafted, "but I believe this was the right way to have annual revaluations."

"I agree," Mr. Brier said… "But my read of this didn't sound like annual town-wide (revaluation). It sounded like this is requesting the general assembly to clarify that the process we went through with 2018 purchases is correct and is what should happen."

That comment triggered a commentary from Mr. Boyajian.

Millions missing?

Mr. Boyajian said he pulled out the numbers associated with the contentious 2018 assessments and took a closer look. 

He said there were 350 sold in 2018 and had their assessments adjusted. About 250 of the assessments went up, including some by more than $100,000.

"If you account for only those properties that sold for more than $100,000 over their assessment, meaning under-assessed by $100,000, there was $10 million of valuation missing," Mr. Boyajian said. "Now there's 350 properties that were sold, that is about 5 percent of the properties in Barrington. So again, only accounting for under-assessments of $100,000 or more, we should assume that there's $200,000,000 in missed valuation in Barrington. OK?"

Mr. Boyajian then completed some further math, multiplying by the mill rate, and estimated that there was "$4 million in taxes going uncollected on an annual basis, reallocated to everyone else in town."

Mr. Boyajian then asserted that 7 percent of every resident's tax bill is used to pay for other under-assessed properties.

"So I've heard a lot about the equity in the system that was rolled out, and it was rolled out badly, no one's going to make any bones about that, but it seems to me that what we're losing here is that that view of equity is being espoused by someone who was affected by this, personally. One taxpayer.

But what's being lost, is that you have thousands of households who are paying 7 percent higher in taxes," he said. 

"…I don't care if the legislature says we're going to do it on an annual revaluation of the entire town, or if they come up with some other strategy, but the fact of the matter is when you look at the assessments, there are monstrous, monstrous misses here… We're talking about under-assessments, I'll just rattle some of the numbers off: $574,000 under assessment. $513,000, $448,000. These numbers mean taxpayers in Barrington, some of them, some of them living in a $574,000 house, their entire tax bill went to pay for the under-valuation of someone else's house. It's unconscionable."

Mr. Boyajian then commented on the resident's group, Barrington Citizens for Taxation With Integrity.

"…it would seem to me that integrity here means acknowledging that you're under-taxed. That your neighbors are paying for that," Mr. Boyajian said. "And if you can't do that and say we need to find a solution to this, if your only solution is to say you need to bake in my underassessment for three years, that's the opposite of integrity. That's like calling the Patriot Act for Patriots."

Mr. Boyajian said it was laughable to think something inequitable was occurring with the assessments issue. He later said the council does not need to dwell on the specifics of the resolution.

"This resolution asks for it to be fixed by the general assembly. And the faster we get it to them, the better, is what I say," Mr. Boyajian said.

The commentary yielded a "Bravo" from councilor Kate Weymouth, but some further questioning by Mr. Payne. He said he did not have a problem with the town using an equitable system to determine property values annually, but did take issue with the way the town handled the 2018 assessments.

"We changed the valuations of all the properties that sold, but we didn't look at any of the other properties that were undervalued," Mr. Payne said.

He offered the example of his own house that sold in 2018. He said the prior assessment was about $680,000, but quickly jumped to the sales price of $910,000. Mr. Payne said his neighbor's house was nearly identical, but that valuation remained at $680,000 because the house had not sold in 2018. 

"Does that mean that that property next door was properly valued or not properly valued?" Mr. Payne asked. 

Mr. Boyajian said "No, it would indicate to me that if they really are the same house, they're under-assessed too."

Mr. Payne agreed and said that the town needs to use a system that would be able to accurately determine values for all properties at the same time, not just a small percentage that had sold that year.

Mr. Boyajian said it was better to correct some of the under-assessed properties than not adjust any. 

"No," said Mr. Payne, "it's not better, because it's not treating those people equally."

Mr. Payne said conducting a town-wide statistical revaluation once a year was "perfectly OK." Council member Joy Hearn said that was what the council was asking for. But again Mr. Boyajian seemed hesitant to include anything more specific in the resolution. 

"I think that's the best way, but I'm not saying that there's no other solution," he said. "I wouldn't presume to write the legislation for the legislature. What I would do is point out that there is a problem, and tell them to get to work fixing it."

Solicitor input

Toward the end of the discussion, the town's solicitor, Michael Ursillo, said the resolution would give every town in Rhode Island the authority to pay for a revaluation every year.

Mr. Payne said he agreed with that … "so long as it is a statistical reval."

"That's what it would be," said Mr. Ursillo. "It would have to be. It would have to apply town-wide for it to be legal. It would have to be a fair process that looks at the entire town."

Mr. Brier asked that three words be removed from part of the resolution — "in any way" — which would thereby require tax assessors to conduct their valuations "pursuant to RIGL 44-5-1…"

Mr. Ursillo agreed with Mr. Brier's suggestion, adding that the term "in any way" was too broad.

"It really isn't 'in any way,'" he said. "It has to be a fair and equitable way."

With that change made, the council voted 5-0 to adopt the resolution.

A local legislator said on Saturday, Feb. 15, that he had received the resolution but had not yet reviewed it.

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