Letter: Property appraisal system is one large mess in R.I.

Letter: Property appraisal system is one large mess in R.I.


Recently there have been a number of comments in The Westerly Sun regarding the Westerly tax assessor’s office. Comments by members of the Town Council, the town solicitor and the tax assessor himself indicate that the amendments to the Westerly Town Charter have set the tax assessor up for failure.

Actually, the town tax assessor had already failed well before the amendments to the charter were passed by the voters last November. The tax assessor openly admitted as much when he said that he was/is unable to validate and certify the computer software used by the mass appraisal company contracted by the town to perform townwide real estate appraisals/assessments.

Such remarks and comments fail to recognize the fact that since 1997 the Rhode Island General Assembly has been enacting legislation that involve rules and procedures designed to administer the real estate tax assessment process in a regular, standardized and consistent manner throughout the entire state. The recently approved amendments to the Westerly charter that pertain to the tax assessor’s office and the tax assessor’s role in the assessment of real estate is in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws Sec. 44-5-11.5 (vi). Accordingly, the recent amendments to the charter reflect the legislation that has been in place for a number of years.

When the General Assembly enacted the legislation that required all cities and towns to conduct frequent property revaluations the legislature recognized that cities and towns were not equipped or fully capable of performing frequent revaluations without outside involvement. Enter the mass appraisal companies. Thus, in order to comply with state Title 44, Chapter 44-5 Taxation statutes in a timely and efficient manner all cities and towns had no other choice but to turn to these outside entities.

Since 2009, the town has contracted with Vision Government Solutions, Inc. to conduct the townwide real estate appraisals/assessments in order to comply with the state’s revaluation requirements. In 2015 the town contracted with Vision to perform a statistical assessment of all town real estate and to mail out the tax bills. This contractual action by the town gives rise to several questions.

First, who actually performs the real estate assessments for revaluation purposes in the town? Is it the town tax assessor or is it Vision Government Solutions? Second, if the tax assessor is unable to validate or certify the IT methods, procedures and proprietary software employed by the contractor then, why does the town need both a tax assessor and Vision? Third, since it has already been acknowledged by the town officials that the tax assessor is not capable of analyzing and evaluating Vision’s IT capabilities and qualifications, who is?

According to the Federal Financial Institutions Evaluation Council, “Rhode Island does not regulate mass appraisal companies and federal law does not require it to do so.” Up to now the state does not appear to be inclined to monitor or oversee the performance of mass appraisal companies doing business in the state. The R.I. Department Of Revenue has chosen to ignore R.I. Gen. Laws Sec. 44-5-11.7. Claiming that Sec. 44-5-49 is “permissive” and not mandatory. The department of revenue is content to only register mass appraisal companies’ applying to do business in the state. The R.I. Department of Business Regulations will not license mass municipal appraisal companies stating that doing so is “beyond the scope of their authority.” The R.I. Office of Secretary Of State refuses to take ownership of the policy decision Re: the licensing of mass appraisal companies as demonstrated by the department of business regulation. The General Assembly never required Sec. 44-4-11.7 - Permanent legislative oversight commission, to be implemented.

When an infrequent real estate assessment appeal case is brought to Superior Court the court’s focus and concern is with the assessment of the real estate itself and not the method of assessment. Thus, state government is satisfied to leave all cities and towns up to their own devices when contracting with mass municipal appraisal companies to perform the appraisal/assessment of real estate. If the town tax assessor is incapable and the federal and state governments take no part in the monitoring and oversight of mass municipal appraisal companies then who is left to take responsibility for the associated results?

The Town of Westerly has contracted several times with Vision Government Solutions to conduct appraisals/assessments of all taxable and non-taxable real estate. To date, efforts to demonstrate to town government that there is an error in Vision Government Solutions’ appraisal/assessment methods and procedures has been in vain. Also, efforts to appraise town officials that Vision Government Solutions has not complied with the terms and conditions of its contract with the town have been equally fruitless. When confronted with these revelations the town officials react like a deer in headlights.

To compound matters even more, the General Assembly enacted real estate revaluation legislation without considering or including methods or procedures for dispute resolution regarding an appeal of an incorrect assessment. Instead, the General Assembly continues to rely on remedies already in place. The real estate assessment appeal process at the municipal and judicial level is the same as it was before the implementation of the state’s standardization policy. The result of this failure to consider or anticipate the probability of error and the subsequent fallout without providing a means for a fair and equitable resolution constructively negates due process. Between the General Assembly’s legislation and the R.I. court’s rules and procedures both arms of state government have effectively eliminated the possibility of due process, except in extreme cases.

The court’s position is understandable as the court is not in the business of making laws. In addition, the courts are not in a position to become the de facto tax assessor for the entire state. Without any viable alternatives to real estate assessment disputes it is possible that the courts could end up with clogged calendars full of assessment appeal cases. The courts, being cognitive of this possibility, have put in place rules that make it difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary taxpayers to seek relief from an incorrect property assessment.

With no state regulation, oversight or monitoring and the courts’ restrictive rules coupled with the town’s admitted limitations, Vision Government Solutions and other mass appraisal companies are free to continue with questionable, uncertified, unverified and unlicensed mass municipal appraisal/assessment methods and procedures with complete impunity.

With the state now dealing with the efforts to automate and make fully operational the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles and Unified Health Infrastructure Project IT programs, the last thing that is needed is the calling into question of mass appraisal companies’ IT-based real estate assessment computer models. With its track record to date for dealing with the upgrading of complex, automated, electronic systems it is doubtful that the state has the expertise or the wherewithal to analyze and evaluate mass appraisal companies’ appraisal/assessment computer based methodology, even if the state were so inclined.

Returning to the town tax assessor’s office, it is clear that in one respect the tax assessor has become a victim of circumstances beyond his control. On the other hand the above may explain the tax assessor’s job performance or lack thereof. It does not, however, excuse it. While admitting that the tax assessor is inexperienced and therefore incapable of performing his duties within the context of the aforementioned IT environment, local town government has been content to ignore the situation. One reason for the town’s lack of action was expressed by the town solicitor when he warned that taking any action would create grounds for appeals by aggrieved taxpayers.

While real estate taxpayers may have grounds for appeals it should be noted that due to the court’s focus on the assessment itself and not the methods of assessment, that option is minimized. This fact combined with the court’s rules that in order to file an assessment appeal in Superior Court the plaintiff must be represented by an attorney significantly restricts the chances of seeking relief in court. Even if a tax assessment case does get to court, the plaintiff must overcome the court’s rule that tax assessors are presumed to be correct. The court’s focus and rules preclude any rush to court. In any event, except where thousands of dollars are involved, an aggrieved taxpayer would be hard pressed to find an attorney willing to take a tax assessment appeal case. Attorneys are not in the charity business. This is especially true when the amount of the damages (a euphemism for money) claimed does not justify the expense of going to court.

Moving forward, the expectation is that the Westerly Town Council will continue to ignore the elephant in the Town Council Chamber, not to mention the current violation of the Town Charter and the Vision Government Solutions contract. One obvious starting point would be to first admit that there is a problem. As for a victim, there are plenty enough to go around.

Jim Angelo Westerly

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