KITTERY, Maine — The Town Council held an “assessing 101” workshop Monday night at Town Hall after several residents complained about the tax assessments of their properties.
After the Portsmouth Herald recently published a story about Gerrish Island residents Randy Price and Mark Steffen questioning their property assessment, Town Manager Nancy Colbert Puff said she received five to 10 e-mails from residents expressing similar concerns.
Price, a veteran Boston television news anchorman, and Steffen charge in a court complaint that the town’s assessment of their Tower Road property was “manifestly wrong” and their property taxes increased 43 percent. The property is currently assessed at $1.2 million, up from $845,000 in 2012.
The workshop was requested by Councilor Chuck Denault after he also received communications from residents expressing concern about their assessment.
Town Assessor Bruce Kerns was to conduct Monday’s workshop, but Town Council Chairman Jeff Thomson said Kerns had a medical issue and could not attend.
Instead, presentations were given by Vern Gardner, an independent appraiser and volunteer on the Board of Adjustment and the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee; Christian Kuhn, development staff clerk for Kittery; and Paul McKinney from Vision Government Solutions.
Gardner said that assessing is based on market values.
“A property’s value is based on similar property values,” he said. There may be about 75 properties in town that are sold each year. Using the sales figures from one to three years, values are broken down into building value and land value.
He said appraising Seacoast towns can be difficult because properties can be on the waterfront or inland, and the different locations are valued differently. A property is broken down into relevant pieces such as square footage, type of heat, if there is a garage, etc. A model is created from sales prices.
The assessor must be “objective, independent and impartial,” Gardner said. “It may seem impersonal to a lot of people,” he said, but an assessor just wants the facts. The town budget may go up at a greater rate than the value of the community, and revaluation brings it back into balance.
Kuhn talked about “just value” equal to “fair market value,” or what a buyer would pay to a willing seller and how the market affects prices. He also described the abatement and appeals process, and where the burden of proof is on the property owner when challenging an assessment.
McKinney described how an outside consultant looks at sales, makes a model and sends appraisers to conduct exterior inspections of every property in town. A final value is sent to the property owner, who can then schedule a hearing to appeal.
Denault asked McKinney what percentage of valuations are overturned. McKinney said about 60 percent see a reduction, but 30 percent could see an increase. He said there may be issues with a property that no one has looked at in a long time.
McKinney did say that some sale prices are thrown out of the models. He gave examples where a waterfront property may have sold for far more than its assumed value and then demolished and replaced with something of higher value.
Price and Steffen attended the workshop, and Price asked what fair market value is. In many ways, he said, what people pay is fair market value but could be lower or higher than the town’s valuation.
Thomson cut discussion off as the regular Town Council meeting was scheduled to begin, but he asked residents for comments and questions, and suggested another workshop may be held in the fall.