Barrington residents take tax fight to AG

Town refuses to discuss policy or release records to Chapin Road residents

By Josh Bickford
Posted 10/10/19

Charlie Payne and Emily Calandrelli want to know how and why the Town of Barrington changed the assessment on their Chapin Road home. They asked for a pile of records; the town mostly refused them. …

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Barrington residents take tax fight to AG

Town refuses to discuss policy or release records to Chapin Road residents

Posted

Charlie Payne and Emily Calandrelli want to know how and why the Town of Barrington changed the assessment on their Chapin Road home. They asked for a pile of records; the town mostly refused them. They asked the town manager to meet with them; he refused. They asked the town council president to put it on an agenda; he refused. Twice — once in September and again on Monday night — Mr. Payne has spoken to the full Barrington Town Council during its regular open comment period; councilors have stared back at him and said nothing.

Denied on all fronts, they’ve taken their questions to the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office, claiming the town violated the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act by refusing their records request.

Above all else, they are bewildered with their local government and local representation.

“I’m more than frustrated, I’m hurt,” said Ms. Calandrelli. “I pay these taxes and I’m not getting any response from the people who are here to help the residents.”

A major policy change

Earlier this year, Barrington Tax Assessor Michael Minardi implemented a new tax assessment policy. Instead of waiting for a townwide revaluation every three years — as mandated by the State of Rhode Island and common practice in all Rhode Island cities and towns — Mr. Minardi decided to change the valuation of any property sold during the calendar year. So at the end of 2018, he adjusted the assessments of about 450 properties.

The home purchased by Ms. Calandrelli and Mr. Payne was one of them. The assessment of their home at 43 Chapin Road increased from $682,000 to $910,000 — raising their annual property taxes about $3,000.

Believing they would have a much lower tax bill for a couple of years, Ms. Calandrelli and Mr. Payne were stunned by the news. They immediately began looking for answers from the town — answers they say they’re still waiting for.

“No one’s addressed the change in assessments,” said Ms. Calandrelli. “I asked for a meeting with the town manager. He would not meet with me because of the ‘pending lawsuit.’ There is no lawsuit. I have not filed anything.”

Mr. Minardi told the Barrington Times that a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court in May 2018 allows municipalities the opportunity to update property assessments at the end of each year based on a home’s sale price or on recent building permits. He decided Barrington would be the first (and perhaps only) town to follow this practice. This year, Mr. Minardi altered assessments for about 450 properties in town.

Mr. Minardi notified those residents of their assessment changes shortly after the financial town meeting on May 22, 2019. The majority of assessments increased to the property’s sale price; about one-quarter of the assessments decreased.

Town won’t release records

The Barrington Town Council has discussed the assessments policy during closed-door sessions, claiming that a threat of litigation allows them to speak privately, but it has so far refused to address the issue in public. 

So rebuffed by the council, Ms. Calandrelli and Mr. Payne submitted a request for public information from the town on Sept. 4. About 10 days later, they received a two-page written response from the town’s legal counsel, Amy H. Goins of the firm Ursillo, Teitz and Ritch.

They asked for a copy of the town’s property valuation plan. The town’s response: “There is no written ‘property valuation plan’ for the preceding three years …” Mr. Payne questions that response, stating that towns are required to file property valuation plans by state statute. 

Ms. Calandrelli and Mr. Payne asked for records of any and all meetings where the assessments policy change had been discussed or considered, “any and all records related to the timing and rationale for the change;” and “any and all records and communications related to the tax assessor’s meeting(s), discussions or other interactions with attorneys representing taxpayers and/or taxpayer’s themselves (including me) regarding the change.”

The town’s response: “No records exist responsive to this request.” 

Mr. Payne said it is hard to believe there are no records of any of the above interactions, including notes made on a calendar or taken during a meeting. 

“If Mr. Minardi was the only who did this and didn’t tell anyone until June … then I think that’s a problem,” said Mr. Payne. In an earlier interview, Mr. Minardi said he did not seek, nor did he need to seek, approval from the town council before implementing his new policy. 

Town demands hefty payments

Two of the records requests made by Ms. Calandrelli and Mr. Payne were met with expensive replies. The residents requested any and all forms of notice given to taxpayers related to the change in the assessments approach. 

Ms. Goins wrote that the paper notices of assessment changes were sent to all taxpayers, but hard copies were not retained. The town estimated that compiling the requested records would require 120 hours of labor, and that at $15 per hour, the total cost of the retrieval would be $1,785. 

“Upon receipt of the ($892.50) deposit, the town will begin to compile the requested records,” wrote Ms. Goins.

Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli also requested the Barrington tax assessor’s list of ratable property and valuations for 2019. Ms. Goins wrote that a printed copy of that list would cost $260.40.

The final item requested by Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli was for “any and all other records that relate to the change that might allow a better understanding of what has transpired.”

Ms. Goins offered this as a response: “This request is too vague and broad for the town to conduct a search for responsive records, and thus the town is not required to respond to this request. Without waiving the town’s objection, no records exist responsive to this request.”

“It’s a constructive denial,” said Mr. Payne. “All I really asked for was an opportunity to see the records and copy the ones I need.”

Case goes to the AG

Troubled by the town’s response to their public records request, Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli brought their case to the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office. 

The complaint, addressed to Special Assistant Attorney General Sean Lyness, states that they believe the town violated their rights under the Access to Public Records Act. “The town has essentially refused us access to public records with no explanation other than (1) no such records exist, and (2) records are protected by attorney-client privilege.”

Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli, who recently established a political action committee titled “Barrington Citizens for Taxation with Integrity,” wrote in their complaint to the AG’s office that they and 350 other Barrington property owners have been singled out by the town’s tax assessor for “an increase in our property valuation for 2019. This occurred in a non-assessment year without any consideration for re-valuation of the other similarly situated properties.”

Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli wrote that they believe the town’s new approach to assessing properties results in an unlawful tax. They said they plan to appeal their recent assessment.

“In order to perfect our appeal, we need to understand what has happened,” they wrote. “But the town has not been forthcoming with any information about how and why this rule-change occurred.”

The residents wrote that Barrington officials have refused to speak with them regarding the issue, citing the threat of litigation. 

“Town employees have been reticent to provide information out of fear of reprisal,” they wrote. “The town council convened two executive sessions to address this new tax rule but will not have any public discussion individually or as a group.”

Mr. Payne attended a Sept. 9 town council meeting and spoke during the public comment period. He asked councilors to appoint a group of people to study the topic more closely: “If the town had the facts, the facts would speak for themselves,” he said. 

During a recent interview, Mr. Payne said the council’s unwillingness to speak publicly about the issue has been frustrating.

“I’m also getting more and more concerned with the town council. I expected more from them,” he said. 

Not on the agenda

Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli said they each asked town officials for the assessments policy topic to be added to the Oct. 7 council agenda. The request was denied.

“I proposed a resolution and tried to get it on the agenda — it got shot down,” said Mr. Payne. “[Council President] Mike Carroll wrote back, and it was real condescending.”

Mr. Carroll said Mr. Payne asked him to create a committee of three people to look into the assessment issue. 

“We already have a committee of three people. It’s called the board of assessment review,” said Mr. Carroll. “So, in light of that, I don’t believe that another committee is warranted.”

When asked why he refused to add the assessments policy topic to the agenda, Mr. Carroll replied: “The issue is whether that is appropriate.”

Mr. Carroll repeatedly said that any residents who feel their property assessments are not accurate can file an appeal. Mr. Carroll would not discuss the issue of the assessments policy change enacted by the tax assessor.

“I’m not going to address that … I’m not going to render any kind of opinion that would interfere with our board as they hear an appeal. We’re not going to address the policy generally,” he said.

Mr. Carroll later added: “I’m not going to put it on the agenda. I’ve answered as best I can.”

Mr. Carroll said that he, as council president, has the power to set the meeting agendas. 

“In a practical matter, any member of the council can ask to have something put on an agenda. I’ve never said no,” he said. 

Ms. Calandrelli and Mr. Payne sent emails to all members of the council asking them to put the item on the meeting agenda. 

When asked if any other council member asked him to add the topic to the agenda, Mr. Carroll said, “No one asked me to put this on the agenda.”

Some are appealing

Emily Calandrelli and Charlie Payne are not the only residents who plan to appeal their recent property assessment. According to Barrington Tax Assessor Michael Minardi, five residents have already filed real estate appeals. Another two residents filed appeals over their personal property, which includes furniture, fixtures and equipment. Mr. Minardi said residents have until Dec. 2 to file an appeal notice with the town. The tax assessor will hear the initial appeals, and residents are permitted to further pursue their appeals with the town’s board of assessment review. 

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