Mirroring property value decline, Westport assessment appeals fall
Reflecting a town-wide trend of declining real estate values, Westport Assessor Paul Friia said Tuesday that appeals of property value assessments are down 70 percent from 2006, the last year that appeals were heard following a town revaluation.
"I'd like to think that people are more satisfied with the values we've put out there this time," he said. "We've tried to be as thorough as we possibly could."
The latest town revaluation, completed last October, assessed the value of every residential and commercial property in Westport. Those numbers were then used for the town's annual grand list, which comprises the total of all taxable real estate, personal and motor vehicle property. The 2010 Grand List totals about $9.6 billion, about 12 percent less than the 2009 total of approximately $10.9 billion.
The town's Board of Assessment Appeals will hear this month about 250 appeals of residential, commercial and personal property assessments. In 2006, the board heard approximately 850 appeals.
"It's a big decrease," said board Chairman David Krauss. "In 2005, it was at the height of the real estate market and, at that point, assessments were raised substantially."
In contrast, the 2010 total value of town real estate fell 13 percent from 2009, a trend that Krauss said contributed to the drop-off in assessment appeals. Board member and realty agent Elaine Arnow said the decrease in appeals also indicates the state of the local real estate market.
"Real estate investments are like a stock that is low," she said. "If stocks are low, that's the time to buy. It's definitely a buyer's market."
Most applicants who appear before the BAA ask for decreases in the assessed values of their homes or commercial buildings to lower their property tax bills. The board, however, will hear just five of the 43 commercial property assessment appeals. State law allows the board to hear only appeals of commercial properties assessed less than $1 million. Appeals for the other 38 properties, all assessed at more than $1 million, would be heard in state Superior Court.
Applicants are allotted approximately 15 minutes during hearings to explain why they believe their properties were inaccurately assessed. The board's members -- Democrats Krauss and Arnow and Republican Garson Heller -- usually hear appeals as a group, but will work individually this year to process the larger caseload produced by the latest revaluation. Last year, the board heard between 100 and 150 appeals, Krauss said. The board, however, will discuss and render decisions on appeals as a group.
After hearing and ruling on all appeals by the end of March, the board will send out written notices of their decisions to applicants. The board has three options for adjudication: It can increase, decrease, or maintain the original assessment value.
Property owners who remain dissatisfied with board rulings would then have 60 days to contest their assessments in Superior Court.
Once the board has adjudicated all appeals, it will then file the Final Board of Assessment Appeals Grand List, which the Board of Finance will use to set the town's new tax rate on May 18. The town's tax rate is currently 14.85 mills, or $14.85 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
Friia said he expects the difference between the BAA's Grand List and the grand list he signed Jan. 31 to be "well under 1 percent."
BAA members are elected with partisan backing, but the board effectively operates as a nonpartisan organization, said Heller, who has served on the board since 1983.
"We're not working for the town or for the citizens," he said. "We just want to make sure that everyone is treated equitably."