Friday, January 31, 2003
Assessor finds large errors in property records
Outdated tables and pricing guides and inaccurate property records may be costing the town thousands of dollars in lost tax revenue each year. According to principal assessor John Speidel, some of the data on which the town depends for assessments are unreliable. A recent spot check in the Tall Pines subdivision off Curve Street found 33% of homes larger than reflected in the town's database. "The whole development will have to be remeasured," he said.
Speidel began checking after noticing homes he was inspecting for additions and add-ons were not conforming to the records. The recent reassessment turned up more cases as neighbors comparing assessments began to offer challenges. In the worst case, a home built in the late '90s was found to be more than twice the size listed in the records. "Apparently an error was made entering the data, and it was never caught."
Speidel noted that inaccuracies in recent homes such as those in Tall Pines should be rare, and points to inconsistent building inspections as the probable root of the problem. "In many instances the data seemed to come off the building plans," indicating inspectors neglected to check that the finished house conformed to the plan. Although Speidel has been with the department less than a year, he speculates the department may have been over-committed and understaffed for assessing a major subdivision. In addition, it is considered good practice to do occasional "field reviews" in which records are carried on-site and compared for accuracy. Speidel believes a field review has not been done in Carlisle since the 1980s.
Speidel also notes the tables and pricing guides, for which many towns spend as much as $15,000 yearly for updates from consultants, seem to have been left largely to the assessors office to update. As the office became busier with new developments, updates lapsed, and the tables became considerably out-of-date. This is a concern in a town where property prices have risen dramatically year to year.
At the FinCom meeting January 22, Speidel proposed spending a one-time $10,000 above his guideline budget to provide for independent consulting services to help update property data. The process would involve checking each house in town against a field card and remeasuring those that don't seem to match. The consultant would be responsible for updating pricing tables, entering data, and conducting hearings to satisfy the requirement for public disclosure. He would also bring experience and data from other towns.
Speidel said the use of a consultant would be cost-effective. Any overages (houses found to be larger than recorded) would be considered "new growth" the town could add to the levy limit, increasing what could be spent in future years. In addition, according to Speidel, the consultant would provide useful information and comparisons in case of an assessment challenge. He pointed to Concord as a town that is now "spending more money to do their assessment again" than if they had done it professionally the first time.
Talk turned to how to pay for the consultant. Chair Larry Barton wondered if the field review would uncover $664,000 in "new growth" (really, growth we just didn't know about), thus paying for the consultant this year. Said Speidel, "Easily, I will find that." Barton also considered whether the overlay account, a set-aside against the possibility of abatements, unpaid taxes or unforeseen elderly exemptions, was too high. Noting the account was at $97,000 and the last reassessment used only $50,000, Speidel said, "I feel it's kind of high." He noted last year's overlay was $143,000 of which only $29,000 was used. Barton noted that reducing the overlay by $10,000 could fund the consultant.
FinCom member Tony Allison congratulated Speidel, "You do a great job. What you do is good for the town ... it's important that people feel there is fairness." Responded Speidel, "This [the field review and records update] would legitimize the whole process greatly."
According to Speidel, there is no mechanism for recouping the revenue lost in past years due to inaccurate records.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito