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By Lisa Loomis
"It seems like what he generates ought to be available. What he produces should be public; we're paying for it," said Waitsfield Select Board member Paul Hartshorn this week in response to queries from taxpayers as to why parts of appraisal data are not readily available to the public.
At its June 25 meeting, the select board heard from a roomful of taxpayers with questions about how the town's appraisal contractor, Spencer Potter, maintains and provides access to public records.
The issue was raised by taxpayer Brenda Shea, who appealed her 2006 appraisal to the state level. While preparing for her hearing before the state appraiser she went looking for the town's records. She discovered that something called the cost report was not included in the public file and was told that it is not included because it is confusing to taxpayers.
The cost reports which Shea sought provide a detailed breakdown of estimated values for individual components of a property. It will include estimated values for items such as ponds, siding, roof, landscaping and more.
At this week's hearing, a roomful of taxpayers turned out to ask why it is not included and to question other practices of the town's contracted appraisers with regard to public records.
"I feel like I should have had that information. It's generated on town computers and is a detail of what goes into your total appraisal. It makes me angry that the information is being held back and is not available," Shea told the board.
"That piece of information is a breakdown of your total assessment. It's a really important piece of information. You can't look at comparables in the town and get a perspective without it. Brenda could not fully prosecute her appeal without it. I think this town has a problem with its lister cards in general. The 1996 cards were destroyed. I think the board has got to take a serious look at this and evaluate whether the town wants to continue its contract," said resident Bob Shaffer.
Resident Al Carr said that he had asked the Potter's office (Spencer Potter is contracted with the town to provide appraisal services and has one employee, David Martin, working with him in Waitsfield) to see the comparables that were used to appraise his property and was told to find his own comparables. Mike Kingsbury said he was pointed to the property appraisal file and told to find his own comparables.
"And what is available when you look in the files is the total values of the properties rather than the breakdown by components so you're not getting true comps anyway," Shaffer said.
"Why is this information not readily available? Transparency is the strength of any organization and this organization is not transparent," asked resident Marta Marble.
Select board member Roy Hadden said that he did not think board of civil authority deliberations over individual property appeals were public, but said the listers evidence should be available.
Board member Charlie Hosford suggested that the board consult with the Vermont secretary of state's office to determine what is and what is not a public record.
Vermont Deputy Secretary of State Bill Dalton said that it is his impression that all parts of appraisal data are public records. He said that taxpayers could make formal requests for all data related to their appraised value using Vermont's right to public access laws. He said that the wording of such requests should compel production of all the data.
At the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, Jim Barlowe concurred that cost reports should be part of the public record, according to Waitsfield administrator Valerie Capels who contacted him after this week's meeting.
Gussie Graves, head of Fayston's listers' office, said that Fayston considers the cost reports to be part of the public record. She said that she adamantly believes she has a right to know how the town values each aspect of her property as well as the individual aspects of other properties in the town.
At this week's meeting, board member Charlie Hosford asked the public if there were other issues to bring up regarding appraising and how the town conducts them. Town resident Jim Marble asked about Potter and to whom he answers.
"Is his contract a matter of public record?" Marble asked.
"He answers to us and we renew his contract," said board chair Elwin Neill Jr.
'I don't like that those cost reports weren't available," Neill added.
Others present asked if the board would discuss this town policy issue with Potter in open session and Hosford said he'd love to see it happen in open session. He cautioned, as did Neill, that because the town is involved in litigation over some property appraisals that the entire discussion may not be public.
"We need to talk about these issues, our contractor and the process. Last year we had this issue on our list of things to look at once the town-wide reappraisal and the appeals were done," Neill said.