Hundreds question new property values

Average increase was 31 percent

July 10, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The town of Williston has heard nearly 800 appeals so far from people dissatisfied with their new property appraisals.

Officials attribute much of the unhappiness to homeowners who can't believe their values have increased amid a widely publicized meltdown in the national housing market. Vermont has largely escaped the falling home values seen in other states, although foreclosure filings have increased and prices have leveled off.

"There is a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds," said Fred Webster, a member of the Board of Listers, which is responsible for overseeing property valuations. "That's giving them a lot of worry."

Listers last week finished hearing 278 grievances from property owners disputing values set by the town-wide reappraisal.

Those formal grievances were prefaced by a round of informal hearings presided over by Town Assessor Bill Hinman. He did not know the precise number of informal grievances, but said they numbered roughly 500.

Among those appealing was Ann Mongeon, whose Bittersweet Circle condominium was appraised at $316,780. The value was reduced on appeal, although she declined to say by how much.

Mongeon said she was surprised to see her property value rise despite the housing market's downturn.

"If you went out and sold my home today, I don't think you can even get the appraised value," she said. "You kind of want to say to them when you go over there, 'What world do you live in?'"

But town officials said the reappraisal reflects changes in value over the past five years and cannot account for what may happen in the future. They say many residents were mollified once they understood that values were based on sales of similar homes.

"It's an education process," said Board of Listers member Gerry Huetz. "People just don't realize how much values went up in this town."

The reappraisal determined that property values in Williston rose by an average of 31 percent. There was a big disparity, however, between residential and commercial property. Residential values jumped by 43 percent while commercial properties rose just 20 percent.

That difference, which town officials acknowledge will lead to a shift in the tax burden from businesses to homeowners, had one resident crying foul.

"The whole thing was orchestrated so that commercial properties underpaid," said Jeffrey Haslett, who lives on Eastview Circle and is president of the neighborhood association. He said the value of his condominium rose to $220,760, a 44 percent increase.

The town is motivated by a desire to keep and attract business so that it can continue to enjoy revenue from the local option tax, Haslett said.

Differences between commercial and residential property reflect market realities, town officials said. Commercial values, which are based on income as well as sales of comparable property, have simply increased less than homes.

The appeal process began after property owners received notice of their new values last month. They were first given a chance to meet informally with assessors.

Many of the 500-odd grievances were settled at that point, Hinman said. Some property owners continued the process by meeting with the Board of Listers, and others elected to skip the informal meetings and take their grievances straight to the listers.

Written decisions on appeals are scheduled to be mailed to residents this week, Webster said. Those still unhappy with their appraisals can appeal to the town's Board of Civil Authority, which is expected to begin hearings in early August. Those who have not already appealed, however, cannot now dispute their appraisals, Hinman said.

Underlying concerns over appraisals is uncertainty about property taxes. The municipal tax rate has been set at 20 cents per $100 in valuation, but the education tax rate, a much bigger factor in property tax bills, has yet to be released by the state. That number should be available within the next few days.

Tax bills will then be mailed to residents, likely no sooner than the end of next week, said Town Clerk Deb Beckett. Since by law residents must be given at least 30 days to pay, she said the usual deadline of Aug. 15 will be pushed back.

Mongeon, who lives on pension and Social Security checks, has seen her annual property tax tab rise from $50 to more than $4,000 during her five decades in Williston.

She said she is "pretty happy" with how the town handled her appeal. Rising property taxes, however, continue to cut into her fixed income.

"The taxes are just too high," she said. "I'm not struggling to pay the bill. But it hurts a little bit."