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Thursday, February 12, 2004

Board of Finance Approves $150,000 to Clear Assessor Backlog

The Westport Board of Finance today approved a special $150,000 appropriation to help clear a backlog of building permit work in the assessor’s office that could yield the town as much as $2 million in additional tax revenue.

But approval came only after intense questioning of Assessor Glenn Werfelman and his assistant, Kevin Murowsky, produced the revelation that the backlog problem had existed for at least five years.

First Selectwoman Diane Goss Farrell earlier in the day had told her weekly citizens brown bag luncheon, which was largely devoted to complaints about the 2003 property revaluation, that she had only learned of the backlog difficulty a week ago.

She said the permit backlog problem was “separate and distinct” from what the J. F. Ryan firm was doing in carrying out the revaluation.

“In prior years, we hired part-time staff to catch up,” Farrell said. “What we need to do is monitor more closely how they are keeping up with the permits.”

A Feb. 9 letter from Werfelman to Farrell requesting the appropriation made no mention of how long the problem had existed other than to say the funds were needed to “assist our office with the significant amount of field work currently on file.”

Farrell opened the special finance meeting by saying, “the intent for this evening is to assist the two gentlemen at the other end of the table,” gesturing to Werfelman and Murowsky. “We have 1,700 permits outstanding,” she said.

But it was only under additional questioning that the assessors listed details of the backlog 20 “questionable” permits from 1998, 64 from 1999, 105 from 2000, 201 from 2001, 416 from 2002, 737 from 2003, and almost 150 issued so far this year.

Based on the values cited in the permit applications, Werfelman estimated there could be as much as $200 million in properties that had not been assessed yet for inclusion in the grand list.

Board chair Steven Ezzes, a Democrat, asked Werfelman why he had not asked for help earlier. The assessor replied that the problem had been manageable before but that complaints about the new revaluation had made the backlog more urgent.

“There should be no backlog,” Ezzes responded. “The office should be properly staffed so you can go out and investigate them in a timely manner.”

Republican Charles Haberstroh also complained about the delay in asking for additional help and wanted to know why auditors had not picked up the backlog problem. He also asked what procedures were in place to make sure it did not happen again.

Farrell said she had instructed Werfelman to inform her any time the backlog reached 400, but several board members said that was allowing the problem to go on too long.

Ron Malone, a member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), told the meeting that money the assessors had failed to collect for new buildings and improvements to existing ones was “money honestly owed to this community.”

“It is just sitting there and we should speed up this process, take care of business and maintain our focus,” he said.

Board member Jeff Mayer, a Democrat, expressed concern about cases in which a home had changed hands since the permit work was completed and that the new owner would be asked to pay back taxes for the previous owner.

Former RTM member Tom Feeley echoed Mayer’s comments and said no one wanted to get a bill for someone else’s back taxes. He urged that specific guidelines be given to the assessor’s office about which back permits to clear up first and how to handle older ones.

Ezzes endorsed Feeley’s call and asked Farrell to provide the board with a list of procedures to be followed in clearing the permit backlog.

Murowsky said he was open to suggestions about how to handle cases in which taxes were due on property that had changed hands.

Mayer suggested that this might be a good time to take on an additional staffer in the assessor’s office so the town does not find itself short of staff in the future that might produce a similar problem.

The assessors said they anticipated workers from the firm selected to clear the backlog to begin their work about March 15 and complete it by Aug. 1.

Werfelman said additional tax bills would then go out separately from the regular tax bills.

The RTM will take up the $150,000 appropriation request at its March 9 meeting.

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Posted 02/12/04 at 03:23 AM  Permalink



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