Town to revisit property values

Reappraisal process begins in Williston

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Despite a recent downturn in the market, officials say Williston property values have risen rapidly enough over the past few years to trigger a town-wide reappraisal.

The Board of Listers recently decided to conduct the reappraisal. It is scheduled to be completed by mid-May, in time to calculate property tax bills mailed in July.

The reappraisal comes amid falling housing prices, at least nationally. The trend has been less pronounced in Vermont than in other parts of the country, and in Chittenden County the market has merely slowed.

“In some ways it seems like odd timing because things have leveled off,” said Bill Hinman, Williston’s town assessor.

But he and other officials said the town has little choice but to reappraise properties because state law mandates the process when assessed values fall far below market prices. They also note that frequent reappraisals help avoid inequities caused by the shifting real estate market, in which some properties appreciate rapidly while others decline in value.

They also note that putting off reappraisals can lead to a situation like the one that made recent headlines in Essex and Essex Junction, where property values and tax bills skyrocketed. It had been 17 years since the last reappraisal in those towns.

“That certainly won’t be the case in Williston,” Hinman said. “What you saw in Essex was a really big jump in taxes because they didn’t keep things up to date.”

Williston last conducted a town-wide reappraisal in 2003. The reappraisal before that was done in 1993.

Every property in Williston was physically inspected during the last reappraisal. This time, the town will conduct a statistical reappraisal, plugging sales figures and other data into a statistical model to determine values for the town’s roughly 3,900 properties.

No more than about 10 percent of them will be inspected under the contract with Hinman’s company, Hinman and Associates Inc.

Hinman works on a contractual basis as Williston’s assessor. The reappraisal contract represents a separate agreement.

The contract calls for a total of $77,000 in payments – but only if a series of deadlines are met. Missing any one of the deadlines will result in a 3 percent deduction per week from the payment for that portion of the work. The entire process must be completed by May 15.

Multiple deadlines were set because of problems with the 2003 reappraisal. Connecticut-based Appraisal Resource Group was contracted to do the work for $220,900. But the contractor missed its only deadline by more than a month, causing property tax bills to be mailed late. Hearings over disputed assessments were still being conducted after the bills were mailed.

“It caused the town a considerable headache, to put it mildly,” said Board of Listers member Fred Webster.

The state of Vermont requires towns to do a reappraisal when a measure called the common level of appraisal, or CLA, drops below 80 percent. The CLA measures the difference between appraised and market values.

Hinman said the state last year estimated Williston’s CLA at 78 percent. But he said that figure is not up to date because the state uses data from as long as three years ago. He said recent property sales indicate the actual CLA in Williston is closer to 65 or 70 percent.

Officials acknowledged the irony of accounting for increases in property value amid a market downturn. But Webster pointed out that property values have until the past year risen at a rapid clip, so appraisals are still generally well below market prices in Williston.

The town did delay the reappraisal by a year. Listers recommended in June 2006 that the reappraisal start then, but later decided to wait.

After reviewing property sales data over the past several months, Board of Listers member Linda Ladd said it became “as evident as the nose on your face” that a reappraisal was needed.

The reappraisal will also ensure taxes are levied fairly, town officials said. Some neighborhoods and commercial areas rise more in value than others, leading to inequities if appraisals don’t also change.

Ladd emphasized that the appraisal won’t necessarily result in a property tax hike for any given homeowner or business. The tax rate is the other factor in the calculation, and the town usually adjusts it downward by the same percentage that overall property values rise after the reappraisal is completed.

That means that taxes will increase only for those who own properties that have appreciated more than average. Others may see no change or even a tax reduction.

Ladd pointed out that the tax rate is based on municipal and school spending, and those budgets are approved by voters.

“We’re not picking on anybody,” Ladd said. “People need to understand we don’t set the tax rate.”