Whitefield selectmen voted Monday to suspend the new controversial town wide property assessment that prompted circulation of a petition to repeal it.
Resident Mike Panosian, who saw the assessed value of his house nearly quadruple, collected at least 275 signatures for the repeal measure to be voted at a special town meeting.
Now that the board, advised by Maine Revenue Services, has decided to delay implementation for this year and return to last year’s values, the special meeting will not be held. However, selectmen will conduct a public hearing the second week of November.
While new tax bills will go out as soon as possible, the town has had to take out a line of credit to meet expenses in the interim.
Last year’s mil rate was 17. With the new assessment and tax commitment in 2009, the mil rate was set at 12.4.
McCormick urged taxpayers contesting their assessed values to continue to meet with assessor’s agent Jim Murphy “about your property values, not your taxes.” Even though the numbers will not be used this year, the discussions should reveal where errors were made in computing building values.
Having met with Maine Revenue Services officials earlier in the day, McCormick gave a couple of reasons for deciding to delay the new assessment. Problems were discovered in the values assigned to commercial and doublewide manufactured homes. Additionally, land values were not added at the same time as building values. The omission “made it more lopsided,” he said.
Steve Gorrill had one of the most unbalanced commercial assessments. His brewery and house were assigned a new value of $533,000, whereas a bank appraisal set the value at $187,000, a figure that climbed by about $8000 after a metal roof was added.
Whereas board member Sue McKeen described Murphy’s approach as based on replacement value minus depreciation, Gorrill was perplexed as to how depreciation could be figured on a 150-year-old house.
In recent weeks selectmen have stressed that Whitefield has never undergone comprehensive valuation. Over the years, board members, in their role as assessors, have visited and valued properties on an annual rotating basis. With no building code along with homeowner lapses in filing notices-to-build when making improvements, some taxpayers have avoided detection and not borne their fair share of the tax burden. Inequity is the result.
Additionally, property taxes for the most part have been low compared with neighboring towns, a reason one man cited Monday evening for his decision to move to Whitefield.
Seven years ago, voters approved starting a town wide property assessment by creating tax cards and regularly updating them. Appraiser Murphy began measuring buildings and, in the past 12 months or so, has been entering data in the computer. He presented his results in September, when the board ratified the assessment at 100 percent of state valuation.
The sudden change alarmed Panosian. “I built my own house 18 years ago for $40,000,” he said, and he believes he could replace it today for $160,000, not the $244,000 the new assessment sets as a value. “All of a sudden it’s a big wham. That’s the problem,” he said.
Judy Richards asked if next year’s increases “won’t be worse for people?”
McCormick said that by not factoring in land this year, “people who have 100 acres got a huge tax break this year because the mil rate went down.” That inequity will change as adjustments are made.
Comments by Cathy Gregoire, who said her taxes have increased while neighbors’ taxes stayed the same, illustrated how notices-to-build get assessors’ attention. “Once we built our garage, our taxes went up every year,” she said.
That inequity, said McCormick, indicates that “some properties were being assessed at 59 percent and others, like Cathy’s, at 100 percent.”
Irregularities in tax cards were also noted as unfair. Richards doubted that Murphy “got to everybody,” and McCormick agreed the backs of some tax cards are blank. Panosian said a date indicating when Murphy looked at his house is not written on his tax card, as it is supposed to be. He and others also questioned how interior features, such as hardwood floors, could be assessed when Murphy hadn’t been inside their homes.
Selectwoman McKeen said, “An assessor can tell a lot by looking at the outside and peeking in. He doesn’t have to go inside.” She added, “He probably will value your house higher if he can’t get inside.
Board members repeated that their goal, in McCormick’s words, “is to get this equitable.”
RSU 12 finance manager Belinda Waterhouse said Tuesday regional school unit planners initially thought the RSU would be given carryover funds for startup. Instead, it was decided that “carryover would remain in the towns because they were the fiscal agents, they have the checkbooks,” and the RSU would bill towns for their share of school unit costs.
Waterhouse said when the eight towns in RSU 12 are billed their monthly assessment, “they figure out what they want to do with their carryover. That money is theirs.” Whether they use the money in one year, or spread it over three years, as towns with larger carryovers have been urged to do, is up to each municipality, she said.
Whitefield’s local education appropriation is $2,029,782 for its share of RSU costs. Monthly payments are $169,148.
McCormick said Tuesday that selectmen did not take Whitefield’s estimated carryover out of its school bill. The final audit isn’t done yet, McCormick said, but he believes the figure will be close to $395,000 and the board’s intent is to apply it to property tax reduction. As for stretching the money over three years, “We haven’t thought about that as a board. It’s a discussion we might have with our representatives on the RSU board of directors,” he said.
For the first time ever, Whitefield has signed up for what McCormick said was a short term line of credit from Kennebec Savings Bank, a $500,000 tax anticipation note to meet expenses.
A majority of town meeting voters last March passed an article authorizing selectmen “to borrow such sums of money as may be necessary to pay current expenses in anticipation of taxes, such sums not to exceed the current tax commitment.”
McCormick said the town only pays interest on the amount it borrows.
“We wouldn’t have the funds to pay the school bills now without it. We’re used to having education funds as a buffer and we don’t have them now,” he said.