Barrington residents rail against new assessments policy

A day after meeting, council releases public statement

By Josh Bickford
Posted 11/5/19

The Barrington Town Council remained quiet on the town's new assessments policy on Monday night, but nearly two dozen taxpayers spoke out in opposition to the change.

During the public comment …

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Barrington residents rail against new assessments policy

A day after meeting, council releases public statement

Posted

The Barrington Town Council remained quiet on the town's new assessments policy on Monday night, but nearly two dozen taxpayers spoke out in opposition to the change.

During the public comment period of the council meeting, one resident after another said the new assessments policy was unfair, had resulted in higher-than-expected tax bills, and needed to be overturned. They asked the council to do something, anything to help.

But after nearly two hours of testimony, the council simply ended the public comment period and moved on to a discussion about a statement they had drafted regarding the assessments policy (see below). Only members of the council had copies of the statement, and Michael Carroll, the president of the town council, would not allow public comment during that portion of the meeting.

The situation so frustrated Chapin Road resident Charlie Payne that he ignored Mr. Carroll and said loudly: "This is a farce. You should all be embarrassed."

Mr. Carroll told Mr. Payne that he would not allow any cursing inside the council chambers, to which Mr. Payne replied: "You've lost my respect and my vote."

He then left the meeting. 

Earlier at the meeting, Mr. Payne and nearly 20 other residents spoke out against the change in the property assessments policy. Starting this year, Barrington Tax Assessor Michael Minardi began altering assessments for homes that had been sold. The new assessments mirrored the sales prices for each property. Mr. Minardi has said that his decision to change the approach to assessments was based on a Supreme Court decision handed down in 2018. In prior years, the town has relied on town-wide revaluations every three years to alter property assessments.

Gary Morse was the first to speak during public comment. The longtime Barrington resident said there is a larger systemic problem with how the assessor's office has been approaching property assessments. He also said the town was "taking liberties" or making arbitrary assessments. Mr. Morse also said the town is not using the same standards for all properties — he said the affordable housing development Walker Farm is being handled differently than other homes.

Mr. Payne spoke out and said the assessments issue was, for him, not about the money. He said it was about the principle, adding that he felt council members, as elected officials, should not be "sticking their heads in the sand" on this issue. Mr. Payne said he was troubled by the stories of people who worked hard to afford a home in Barrington and then been saddled with an unexpected tax bill increase.

Mr. Payne also said residents and taxpayers do not deserve to be treated with rudeness and dismissiveness, as they often are by Mr. Minardi, he said. 

Mr. Payne wanted to hear from each member of the council on the assessments issue — "not group speak." He said he wanted to hear a plan about how they will make Barrington a better town.

Other residents spoke during the meeting — some had long lived in town but recently relocated to different neighborhoods, while others were new to Barrington. 

One woman said she and her family recently moved to town and loved the community, and while she wanted to share that news with others when they asked her what she thought of her new town, she was unable to say anything positive because of the assessments issue. She said her taxes went up by $5,000 more than she had expected. 

Carl Salvo told members of the council that he was going to have to close down his business, a local preschool, because of the unexpected assessment increase. Mr. Salvo said his taxes went up by more than 27 percent. He said he appealed the assessment to Mr. Minardi, but was "ridiculed" and told he must have bought the wrong business in the wrong town for the wrong price. 

Other residents said they were blind-sided by the assessments change, that no one knew about the new policy. Real estate agents from town shared the same concern — they said town officials should have alerted people to the change. Later in the meeting, council member Joy Hearn agreed with that statement, saying residents and Realtors should have been notified ahead of time.

One resident spoke out in favor of the change. Local builder Fred Almeida said he owns 28 different properties in town and he thought Mr. Minardi was doing the right thing. He said if someone pays $1 million for a home, then that person should also pay $1 million in taxes.

While the crowd inside the council chambers applauded for everyone who spoke out against the new assessments policy, no one clapped after Mr. Almeida spoke.

Elizabeth Splaine also spoke out during the meeting, stating that the council had a moral authority to do something about the issue.

"I’ve been approached by two long-standing Barringtonians who are not affected by this issue, and both have told me to keep fighting because what’s being done is not right. And that’s why I’m here. That’s why we’re all here," she said.

Council statement

The Barrington Town Council released its public statement regarding the assessments policy: 

STATEMENT OF THE BARRINGTON TOWN COUNCIL

There has been a great deal of discussion and a certain amount of confusion about tax assessments set as of December 31, 2018. Roughly speaking, the assessment of almost 250 properties increased because they were sold for prices higher than their assessed value, indicating that they had been under-assessed. The variances ranged from $500 to $574,000.  The assessment of approximately 100 properties was decreased because the properties sold for less than their assessed value, meaning that they had been over-assessed.  These variances range from $500 to $328,000. Eight properties were sold for the same price as their assessed value. 

In light of these variances, and a recent Supreme Court decision holding that taxpayers could have their assessments reduced because of a change in value in years following a town-wide reassessment, the tax assessor assessed the value of properties sold in 2018 at the 2018 sale price for purposes of the required December 31, 2018 valuation of all properties in town. Several residents have come forward asking the Town Council to change the assessments for properties that changed hands during calendar year 2018.

In light of these residents’ repeated requests, the Town Council thought it should clarify its limited role in setting and apportioning taxes and explain some of the issues. 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.

Did the town collect more in taxes as a result of the reassessment?

None of these variances between sales prices and prior assessments resulted in the Town collecting more or less tax revenue at any time. The Town bills and collects only as much tax revenue as the voters decide to levy at the Financial Town Meeting. That total approved tax is then divided between taxpayers proportionately based upon the assessed value of their properties. 

The stated reason the tax assessor reassessed properties based on real estate sales was to correct over-assessments and under-assessments so that they more accurately reflect the actual value of the properties.

What is the difference between a property’s actual value and its assessed value?

Ideally, there should be no difference. Subject to a few narrow exceptions, state law requires that “All real property subject to taxation shall be assessed at its full and fair cash value…to be determined by the assessors in each town or city…” So, that means property owners whose property is assessed for more than “its full and fair cash value” are paying more than their share of the local taxes, and property owners whose property is assessed for less than “its full and fair cash value” are paying less. 

Given that there are thousands of properties in Town, many of which have not sold in decades, it should be no surprise that there is some variance between assessed value and actual value. When sales do occur, however, that sale is usually a better indicator of a property’s “full and fair cash value” than any appraisal can provide.  The Rhode Island Supreme Court has repeatedly “construed the term ‘full and fair cash value’ to mean that price the property would probably bring in a transaction in a fair market between a willing seller and a willing buyer.” 

Why are some people complaining about the change in tax assessments for their property?

There may be a number of reasons.  Some people may believe that the assessed value doesn’t reflect the “full and fair cash value” because the tax assessor failed to consider important information.  For example, an assessment may erroneously list a finished basement, when there is only a crawl space, or may list a car that was sold.  This happens every year and we have a process to address these concerns.  We will talk more about that process below.

Other property owners may believe that, even if the assessed value accurately reflects the actual value, their assessment still shouldn’t go up because the change was mid-cycle.  That is, it occurred during a year that was not a revaluation year.  Under state law, cities and towns are required to revalue properties every three years for purposes of property taxation; the last revaluation took place in 2017 and the next one is scheduled for 2020.  Even if the assessment is wrong, the argument goes, a tax assessor can’t change the assessment in an “off year” so corrections can’t be made until a revaluation year.  This would mean that property owners with incorrectly low assessments should continue to pay less than their share, or those with incorrectly high assessments should continue to pay more than their share, until the whole town faces revaluation.   

This was the argument made by the Town of Portsmouth to a number of taxpayers who claimed to be over-assessed – that is, despite the fact that the assessments weren’t accurate, taxpayers could not change them mid-cycle.  In 2018, the Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected Portsmouth’s arguments and found for the taxpayers in the Balmuth case.  Later that year, the Barrington tax assessor received a call from a lawyer representing a client who bought property below the assessed value.  The lawyer asked if the tax assessor would reduce the assessment based on Balmuth. Thereafter, the tax assessor determined that adjusting assessments based on sales prices was called for in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling. 

How does this affect my taxes?

When a property is under-assessed, the tax revenue that the property owner would otherwise pay is made upon by an increase in the tax rate that applies to all taxpayers. So, for example, when a property is under-assessed by $500,000, approximately $10,000 in taxes are divided between all other taxpayers in proportion to the assessed value of their property. Conversely, when a property is over-assessed, that taxpayer will pay more than his or her share of taxes. Based upon 2018 sales, there were approximately 100 taxpayers whose assessments exceeded the full and fair cash value of their properties meaning that, without a correction, they would be paying more than their share.  These were corrected.

Why did the Town Council change the tax assessment policy?       

The Town Council made no change to tax assessment policy.  State law and the Town Charter put the power to assess properties only in the hands of the tax assessors. The Town Council has no power under state law or the Town Charter to set, to veto, or to change assessments or assessment policies. The Council does not get to decide how taxes are assessed, and we didn’t do so here.  The Council did not vote on this, so the proposal was not discussed in public.  It is regrettable that this did not occur.  Making the tax assessment changes public could have alleviated many concerns.

To those who have asked us why we don’t change the “policy”, the answer is we don’t have the legal authority to do so.   There is no provision in law that empowers the Town Council to do so and there are a number of provisions that make clear that the Assessor alone has that authority.

Think of it in reverse, if the Town Council had directed the assessor, over his objection, to assess property in the manner that he has, the first thing those aggrieved would argue is that the assessor (and not the Council) has the sole authority to set an assessment. They would be right. His decisions are subject to an appeal process, but such appeals are decided by an independent board, not the Town Council.

If, and only if, the tax assessor or that independent board finds the tax assessed is wrong, or if the state tax administrator agrees with an opinion of the solicitor that the assessment is illegal and intervenes, then the Town Council has the ability to cancel the taxes in whole or in part “in order to effect a correction”.  None of these conditions has been met and for that reason there is no basis for Council intervention. We cannot change the assessment itself under any circumstances.   

What is the process for a property owner to correct an assessment they think is wrong?

The process is set out below but generally, it involves going to the tax assessor first to explain why a property owner believes the assessment is wrong.  If the tax assessor doesn’t agree, then the taxpayer may appeal to the Barrington Board of Assessment Review.  If the taxpayer is still unsatisfied after that body decides, he or she can go to the Superior Court.  More specifics are listed at the end of this statement.

The Board of Assessment Review (the “BAR”) is a body created by state law and the Barrington Town Charter.  That means that it was the people of Barrington at a Financial Town Meeting, not some prior Town Council, who decided the best way to address a dispute over an assessment.  Any taxpayer who believes that their property has been erroneously assessed, can follow the appeal process and be heard by the Board.

We are confident that the members of the BAR will listen carefully to the evidence and arguments before them, and then render their own considered judgment, independent of any political or outside influence.

It has come to our attention that some people believe the BAR doesn’t have jurisdiction over the kind of complaint relating to the reassessment of properties based on purchase price in 2018.  This is incorrect. The BAR has jurisdiction to hear appeals and “determine that the valuation of any property has been erroneously assessed”.

Why isn’t this issue being more openly discussed by the Town?  

Anyone who wants to be heard on this is welcome to do so during the public comment portion of our hearings, and a number of people have availed themselves of this opportunity. The Town Council is, however, more constrained in what it can and should say, for a number of reasons.  

First, as was noted earlier, 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 second reason that the Town Council may seem reluctant to comment on this is that we don’t want to influence the decisions of our tax assessor as he performs his lawful duties, or those of the Board of Assessment Review as it reviews the tax assessor’s decisions.  If we were to express an opinion, then that might be seen as an attempt to influence a decision of the BAR whose members we appoint.  Again, the goal is to remove politics from the decisions and the appeals.

A third reason for us to be circumspect is that we have been threatened with a lawsuit.  Such lawsuits are really against all of the people of Barrington and the Town Council has a responsibility to act in the best interests of all of the people of Barrington, even if it is a resident who is bringing suit.  In this case, a resident is arguing that their property is being overtaxed, and it necessarily follows that the rest of the taxpayers are therefore being undertaxed.

In deference to the independent judgment of those who are lawfully charged to evaluate such claims, we have not and will not state an opinion as to the merits of the claims of those who have threatened to sue the Town of Barrington.  For the same reason, we cannot simply agree with the merits of their argument and bypass the process set in place by the people of Barrington.

Here are some specifics on how to appeal an assessment:

State law allows a taxpayer to appeal the assessment of his or her taxes within ninety days after the first tax payment is due.  The appeal will first go to the tax assessor, where the taxpayer will explain to the assessor why he/she thinks the assessor is wrong.  

The assessor then has forty-five days to make a decision.  If the assessor agrees, the assessor may change the assessment.  

If the assessor doesn’t change the assessment, doesn’t act within the forty-five-day period, or changes the assessment in a way that is not satisfactory to the taxpayer, the taxpayer may appeal to the BAR.  

The appeal to the BAR should be filed within thirty days of the assessor’s decision. 

Once the appeal is filed, the BAR has ninety days to hold a public hearing on the appeal.  

After the hearing is held, the BAR has thirty days to render a decision either upholding or overturning the decision of the assessor.  

After the BAR renders a decision, if the taxpayer is still unsatisfied, he/she may file an appeal in Superior Court.  The appeal to Superior Court must be filed within thirty days of the taxpayer receiving notice of the BAR decision. 

Further information about the appeals process and the forms required for filing an appeal are available on the Town website. Information is also available by calling the Tax Assessor’s office at Town Hall, at (401) 247-1900 x 3, or by visiting the Assessor’s office at Town Hall.

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