While out for a morning stroll, Sentinel & Enterprise Correspondent Gary Fournier captured a gorgeous sunrise over Whalom Lake in Lunenburg.
LUNENBURG — Facing an “unprecedented” property tax increase, waterfront residents made waves before the Select Board on Tuesday.
A disgruntled crowd bombarded the Select Board and members of the Board of Assessors with questions about the property tax increase that could force some residents to pay 300% more compared to the previous fiscal year.
Select Board Chairman Michael-Ray Jeffreys sympathized with those in attendance and made it clear that both the Select Board and Board of Assessors would do what they could to investigate potential issues and address potential abatement requests in a timely manner.
“It’s clear that many of our neighbors and friends are terrified they now can’t afford to live in their homes, in a community that they love because their property tax evaluations are resulting in tax increases up to 300% higher than the previous fiscal year,” Jeffreys said. “An investigation will answer the bottom line question of why it is that we are here at this place in time, outline the series of events that led us to this collective moment and will provide recommendations to ensure that we avoid such a calamity in the future.”
“After speaking with the members of the Board of Assessors over this past week, I know they are genuinely committed to diligently, expeditiously and equitably addressing all abatement requests,” he said.
Multiple Select Board members described the spike as a “disaster” for residents and, as they called for an investigation into the assessment process, said such a disaster could never happen again. Vice Chairman Tom Alonzo, meanwhile, criticized the Board of Assessors for a lack of oversight of the assessment process and said he would support “any investigation” that ensured as much.
“This is a disaster for a lot of people, there’s no question about it,” Select Board Clerk Louis Franco said. “If you look at the situation, something went wrong and we need to figure out what that is.”
“If we’re just saying ‘this is what the state tells me to do’ and if we’re slaves to that, then we have a lot more to worry about than an investigation into this board,” Alonzo said. “We have managed to create not a win-win, not even a win-lose, but a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.”
“I’m going to support any investigation that gets to the bottom of this because we can never, never let this happen again,” he said.
The Select Board voted unanimously to investigate the assessment process and said that a “road map” of that investigative process would be created and shared with residents. Jeffreys said the source of funding for the investigation would be addressed at the Select Board’s next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24.
The Board of Assessors and Principal Assessor CJ Carroll maintained that there was no error in the assessment process and that their values were within state parameters. That said, Board of Assessors member Kevin Fish apologized for a lack of communication with residents throughout that process, which occurred back in November, and prior to the issuance of individual tax bills.
“I do think the mistake was not in the process, the calculations, but in the lack of communication,” Fish said. “I will stand and publicly apologize for that now.”
As he did at their meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10, Jeffreys urged residents to request an abatement of their property tax assessment. He also clarified that, while residents were not necessarily “required” to make their property tax payments by the Feb. 1 deadline, state law would require the town to attempt to collect the full amount of that unpaid tax plus interest if a resident’s abatement was denied.
When questioned as to whether the Board of Assessors could push back the Feb. 1 deadline, Jeffreys said that would be something both the Select Board and Board of Assessors would “have to look into.” Board of Assessors member Christine Cosgrove Higdon said that, if possible, she and other board members would vote on it.
“If we have the right to extend the deadline, that’s exactly what we would want to do to help people,” she said.
Regardless of a potential deadline extension, Carroll said the Board of Assessors would “guarantee” that every resident that felt their home had been improperly valued would have the chance to file an abatement.
“[An abatement] is something that everyone here has the right to,” Carroll said. “And [the Board of Assessors] will ensure that everyone has a fair shake at that.”
LUNENBURG — Hoping to quell the concerns of the town’s waterfront residents, the Select Board is expected to address steep increases in property tax payments during their Tuesday, Jan. 17 meeting.
Residents located near or along Lake Shirley, Whalom Lake and Hickory Hills Lake voiced their displeasure with what they believe to be a miscalculated or even targeted increase in their most recent property tax assessment. With frustrations growing, they lobbied the Select Board to take action at their most recent meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10.
Some residents said their tax payments increased by as much as 135% compared to the previous fiscal year. Resident and Lake Shirley Improvement Corporation President Joanna Bilotta described that increase as one most residents simply could not afford.
“A lot of people in this area are elderly, retired or live paycheck-to-paycheck,” Bilotta said Monday. “They can’t afford this, none of us can, really.”
In an interview Monday, Select Board Chairman Michael-Ray Jeffreys said Tuesday’s meeting would provide an update for concerned residents and, likely, a vote to initiate an investigation. With Principal Assessor CJ Carroll also set to attend, Jeffreys said there would be time for Carroll to explain the assessment process and answer questions before inviting public comment.
“It’s clear that many residents are upset and that something needs to be explained or that something is amiss,” Jeffreys said. “We need to conduct an investigation to figure out the details of what transpired, why it transpired and what we can do from here.”
The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the Lunenburg High School auditorium.
At the Jan. 10 meeting, many residents asserted that the increase must be the result of an error either by the Board of Assessors or in their assessment process. Select Board Vice Chairman Tom Alonzo agreed that it was “clear that there is a serious problem here” and went on to say that he would lobby for a review of the assessment process if able.
“There’s nobody in this room that’s coming before this [Select Board] or making an appeal to the Board of Assessors that they shouldn’t pay taxes or that they are surprised that their taxes increased,” Alonzo said. “This has exposed a serious problem that people shouldn’t be facing at this point, there should be triggers and mechanisms and safety valves in place to prevent it.”
“Even if every rule and regulation was followed, there’s something morally and ethically wrong with the result of the equations that got us here. If it’s within our power, I would certainly lobby for a review of the entire assessment process for this year, so we know that these values have been properly assessed,” he said.
That said, Jeffreys and Alonzo both stressed that, while the Select Board could investigate, any significant action would fall under the authority of the Board of Assessors.
On Monday, Bilotta said she and others just hoped to receive some sort of explanation at the next meeting.
“We’re hoping that this whole thing is just a mistake, a miscalculation,” Bilotta said. “But, if it’s not, we’re hoping that the Select Board, the Board of Assessors have some sort of explanation, an answer or some way to fix this.”