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Taxpayer questions town's records policy

06/21/2007

By Lisa Loomis

A Waitsfield taxpayer who successfully challenged the town's 2006 appraisal of her property has asked the town for its reasoning on a public records policy which excludes a portion of the appraisal from being accessible to the public.

Brenda Shea, in a June 14 letter to the town select board, asked the select board to take corrective action in terms of how the town listers conduct the business of record keeping and making information available to the public.

Shea notes in her letter to the board that cost reports, "which are public records, are not included in the property data files and are not made accessible. I believe other Waitsfield property owners should be made aware of this problem."

At issue is what pieces of paper property owners see when they ask to view the files pertaining to the town's appraisal of their property. Shea said in her letter to the board that she discovered this during the process of appealing the town's 2006 appraisal of her home. She appealed the appraised value of her home, which the listers and Board of Civil Authority (BCA) set at $487,200. Merle Van Giesen, the state tax appraiser, found the correct appraisal to be $462,400.

Hers was one of eight appeals which Van Giesen adjudicated after the BCA heard some 50 appeals of the 2006 appraisals.

"During the appeal before the state, the state appraiser asked us why we didn't include all the information which he requested, including the cost report. We said it wasn't available," Shea said in an interview.

She explained that the appraiser, Van Giesen, wanted to see property transfer tax returns and cost reports for comparable properties. Those cost reports are not in the town files or readily available for the general public to review and/or copy, she wrote in her letter ot the board.

"When I talked to David Martin, one of the town's appraisers, he told me that the cost reports were not put in the general public files because the town felt it would be too confusing for the public," she said.

Cost reports are one part of town records for individual parcels of property. They show detailed breakdowns of estimated values of items like siding, roofing material, landscaping and more. In Moretown, Warren and Fayston, town clerks and listers reported that the cost reports are included in the readily accessible portion of the public records which taxpayers can view.

Shea said that in further conversation with Martin she learned that she (and other taxpayers) would have to specifically request to see the cost report in order to have access to it.

During her hearing before Van Giesen, the appraiser asked Martin why the cost reports were not available in the files with the rest of the information and Martin responded that the listers felt including only the assessors' card was adequate.

When asked by Van Giesen which he would prefer to have, the assessors' cards or the cost report, Martin said he prefers the cost report.

"It became apparent to me that the listers were intentionally not including the cost reports in the property data files in order to make it more difficult for property owners to successfully challenge the valuations that the listers placed on properties," Shea wrote to the select board.

David Martin could not be reached for comment on the town's policy and the select board will discuss the matter at its Monday, June 25, meeting. Town administrator Valerie Capels said she was not aware that the town had specified a specific policy on the issue of the cost reports.

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