Town refuses to release solicitor’s opinion about new assessments policy

Town manager: New assessments policy will be reviewed

By Josh Bickford
Posted 11/20/19

During an interview late last week, Barrington Town Manager Jim Cunha said the new assessments policy, which has drawn some significant backlash, is “not locked in” for next …

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Town refuses to release solicitor’s opinion about new assessments policy

Town manager: New assessments policy will be reviewed

Posted

During an interview late last week, Barrington Town Manager Jim Cunha said the new assessments policy, which has drawn some significant backlash, is “not locked in” for next year. 

“I am confident that the tax assessor will re-evaluate the process based on all the facts,” Mr. Cunha said, adding that he would “encourage” Barrington Tax Assessor Michael Minardi to re-evaluate the policy.

“It is important to consider how this has impacted the community,” he said.

Mr. Minardi confirmed that he will be taking another look at the policy. “Yes, I will re-evaluate it,” he said, adding “That doesn’t mean I will change it.”

Mr. Minardi said the best approach to setting assessments would be similar to a policy set in Massachusetts, where revaluations are conducted each year to update property values. 

Mr. Minardi’s new approach to assessments was based in part upon a recent court ruling which allowed taxpayers to request alterations to assessments during non-revaluation years. Mr. Minardi said that he had been contacted by attorneys for property owners who had planned to have their clients’ assessments reduced based upon lower sales prices.

“I would have lowered them all,” he said.

The town would have had to issue abatements to those property owners.

However, in reaction, Mr. Minardi decided to adjust the values of all properties that had been sold — higher or lower — not just those requested by property owners. 

Of the approximately 450 properties sold last year, 350 sold at a price higher than their assessments. 

In 2009, as part of a settlement with a residents group that challenged a revaluation, the town issued more than $1 million in abatements.

Documents denied

Some residents have already appealed their higher assessments, and some are still trying to gather documents to strengthen their appeals cases.

However, the town has refused to hand over a number of documents sought by two residents. Charlie Payne and Emily Calandrelli filed a complaint with the state’s Attorney General after the town sent a two-page letter to them refusing to relinquish certain information regarding the assessments policy. 

Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli requested records of any and all meetings where the assessments policy change had been discussed or considered, but an attorney for the town wrote that no records exist. 

Mr. Payne found that hard to believe: “If Mr. Minardi was the only one who did this and didn’t tell anyone until June … then I think that’s a problem,” Mr. Payne said during an earlier interview. 

However, an affidavit by Mr. Minardi offered in response to the AG’s investigation stated that Mr. Minardi had consulted with Barrington Town Manager Jim Cunha and the town solicitor to see if it was “legally permissible” for Mr. Minardi to change how he assesses properties. 

“I received email correspondence and a memorandum from the Town Solicitor’s office that offered a legal opinion on this subject,” stated Mr. Minardi’s affidavit. 

He also wrote that he discussed the potential change with the town manager.

On Nov. 7, The Barrington Times filed a public records request for the solicitor’s opinion regarding the assessments policy change. A few days later, the town’s assistant solicitor, Peter Skwirz, issued a response, writing that the opinion was protected by attorney-client privilege. 

“Accordingly, such documents are exempt from the APRA (Access to Public Records Act) under 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(a) and therefore, your request is denied,” Mr. Skwirz wrote.

Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli, in their request to the town, asked for “communications about the change with the Town administration.” 

In his affidavit, Mr. Minardi wrote that he had discussed the assessments policy with the town manager and the solicitor, but added that there are no written communications or other recordings or records of these discussions.

Real estate concerns

At a recent town council meeting, more than a dozen residents spoke out against the new assessments policy. 

Some said the new policy and ensuing tax increases may force them to sell their homes. Others said the new policy borders on unethical and discriminatory. And most of the people who approached the microphone during the Nov. 4 council meeting said they would not have purchased a home in Barrington if they had known about the assessor’s new policy.

Randall Hodge bought a home on Ferry Lane last year and said the policy change resulted in a $1,000-per-month increase to his taxes. Mr. Hodge said he would have purchased a home in East Greenwich if he had known about the tax assessment policy change in Barrington.

Antonella Fine shared a similar message. The Barrington resident said her taxes increased by nearly $5,000 annually because of the new assessments policy. 

“We were completely blind-sided,” she said, adding that her family would have reconsidered its decision to move to Barrington had they known about the policy change. 

James Galloway, who moved to Barrington about a year ago, cautioned the council on the assessor’s new policy. Mr. Galloway said he lived in a town in Illinois that instituted a similar policy and the change resulted in a drastic drop in property values. He said his home’s value dropped by nearly $400,000.

Mr. Galloway said he moved to this area because of his job, but would hesitate to tell co-workers to move to Barrington, for fear that they would experience a similar tax bill increase after purchasing a home. Instead, Mr. Galloway said, he would recommend his co-workers look to buy a home in East Greenwich or on the East Side of Providence. 

You’ll know what your taxes will be in those towns, he said.

Realtors upset by policy

A number of real estate agents attended the Nov. 4 council meeting also. Many Realtors who work in Barrington have voiced their concerns about the chilling effect the new assessments policy could have on the local real estate market. Two well-established real estate agents pointed to problems with the new policy: they said it creates a dual taxation system, where one group of residents’ properties are assessed one way, and another group is handled differently. 

Rhode Island law states that all properties should be assessed in a uniform manner, said one agent.

The real estate agents also criticized the town’s lack of notification with the policy change. They said the change came without any forewarning and without any public discussion. 

“It’s wrong, and you guys need to fix it,” said one of the agents.

The owners and managers of real estate companies in Barrington authored a letter to the editor in mid-August, listing their “deep concerns and many questions” regarding the new assessments policy.

One of their concerns states, “We fear that Barrington’s aberrant property assessment policy may cause many prospective homebuyers to consider buying in other Rhode Island and Massachusetts communities. Barrington’s system will likely appear unfavorable and punitive … We, as real estate professionals, most of whom are residents of Barrington, are extremely concerned with this new policy. It creates a true obstacle for people moving to town, as well as for existing residents who want to sell their home.”

Some of the real estate officials also met earlier with Barrington Town Council President Michael Carroll to discuss their concerns, but the meeting yielded no resolution. In fact, the council has remained mostly quiet on the issue. 

Council statement

Despite numerous pleas for intervention from the public during the comment period at the Nov. 4 meeting, the council refrained from speaking on the issue. 

Instead, council members waited until the next agenda item and discussed the language of a five-page statement they released regarding the assessments policy. 

The statement offered some background on the assessments policy and emphasized the council’s inability to act on the issue: “In sum, the Town Council does not have the power to set or to change assessments. State law delegates that power only to tax assessors, and delegates review of assessments to assessment boards of review that are appointed by town and city councils. This is an obvious and sensible means of separating assessments from politics.”

The statement included what councilors thought might be some frequently asked questions about the assessments policy, such as “Why are some people complaining about the change in tax assessments for their property” and “Why isn’t this issue being more openly discusses by the Town?”

To that last question, the council said people are invited to speak about the issue during the public comment portion of meetings. “The Town Council is, however, more constrained in what it can and should say, for a number of reasons. First … the Council has no legal authority to set, to veto, or to change assessments or assessment policies. Were it otherwise, elected officials might improperly insert politics into assessment decisions.”

The council also stated that it does not want to influence the decisions of the tax assessor. “If we were to express an opinion, then that might be seen as an attempt to influence a decision of the BAR (Board of Assessment Review), whose members we appoint.”

The council also stated it would not discuss the issue because the town has been threatened with a lawsuit. 

The statement concluded with instructions on how a resident could file an appeal. 

Appealing on policy

Is it really worth the effort to appeal your recent assessment?

Maybe.

The Rhode Island Division of Municipal Finance, which governs tax assessment, has stated that all taxpayers can appeal their assessments based on the “policy” used to determine a property’s value. 

That may be good news for residents who were impacted by the town’s new approach to assessing property values. Starting this year, the town’s tax assessor began assessing property values based entirely upon that property’s sales price within the past year. In the past, all properties were assessed every three years through a town-wide revaluation, where multiple factors were used to determine value.

For the last few months, a group of taxpayers have challenged the town’s new policy and grown increasingly frustrated with the situation. 

Time and again, they have been told by town officials to appeal their assessments, but so far that has not made a difference for anyone. Barrington Tax Assessor Michael Minardi said nine taxpayers have appealed their residential property assessments, and none have resulted in altered assessments.

The deadline to file an appeal is Dec. 2. After that date, people who file appeals will have them heard by the town’s Board of Assessment Review. 

“After the deadline it (the appeal) is stamped late, and it will not be reviewed by me,” said Mr. Minardi.

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