Thursday, February 26, 2004
The Representative Town Meeting (RTM) Finance Committee Wednesday night closely questioned the circumstances surrounding the backlog of 1,700 files that need to be added to the 2003 property assessment.
It then recommended approval of a $150,000 appropriation requested to bring the assessment up to date.
The vote to recommend approval was unanimous and the matter will go before the full RTM on March 9. The Board of Finance approved the amount to hire a firm to help clear the backlog at its Feb. 11 meeting.
First Selectwoman Diane Goss Farrell said she has also added $30,000 to the assessor’s office budget for the next fiscal year for extra help and overtime to make sure a backlog does not reoccur. And she said she has alerted town auditors to closely monitor the situation.
“I’m putting in measures so alarms go off,” Farrell told the committee. She said Finance Director Don Miklus was in touch with auditors to find out why they did not pick up the problem. “They never brought it to our attention,” she said.
Assessor Glenn Werfelman said auditors had not spoken to him about the backlog. “They never requested material from us,” he said.
Farrell has estimated the town has lost as much as $2 million in tax revenue because of the failure to catch the problem which goes back to 1998.
She promised the committee they would have in hand before their March 9 meeting guidelines on how the town intends to try to collect the back taxes something she said will be especially “vexing” in cases in which the properties have changed hands.
Several RTM committee members expressed dismay that the problem had gone undetected for so long.
“It’s a management issue,” said Ron Malone, District 6. “These people (whose properties had improvements) expected a change in the value of their propertyօand it’s now costing other people money. That’s a big mistake.”
Added Michael Rea, District 8, “I’m afraid we may have a confidence problem here. It’s going to be shaky.”
Farrell said her efforts to fix the problem and restore confidence in the assessment procedure was “an open and transparent process” and that she would work diligently at it until completed.
Asked by a committee member whether the tax collector’s office would also need additional funding because of the problem, Miklus said he did not think so.
He said he spoken with George Underhill, the tax collector, who told him as long as the backlog is cleared “on a piecemeal basis,” his office could handle it with its present staffing.
Farrell said the Board of Assessment Appeals would have the authority to adjust any assessments on properties that because of no fault of their owners had not been properly included in the town’s file in a timely manner.
Selectman Carl Leaman said the town was not looking to have owners caught in the backlog problem pay thousands of dollars “on day one.”
Critics of the revaluation have pointed to the backlog and wide variations between some assessments and recorded sales of the property as evidence of major flaws in the process.
Some have called for the revaluation to be thrown out or, at the very least, for the RTM to “phase in” the new assessment, which it is empowered to do under state statute.
Farrell has said J. F. Ryan Associates, the firm which carried out the assessment, is reviewing a number of properties called to its attention during recent hearings as well as other properties in town and a revised assessment list will be completed before March 1.
She has also said the number of people questioning assessments is relatively small in relation to the more than 10,000 properties reviewed.
Editor’s note: The editor of WestportNow is Moderator of the RTM.
Posted 02/26/04 at 04:03 AM Permalink
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Keep up the pressure, RTM. And while you are at it, ask Mr. Werfelman why he never told anyone his office was so backlogged. Now we will all pay for his incompetence.
Thank you, WestportNow for keeping us up to date on this. The Westport papers are giving it minimalist coverage—but what would you expect.