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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Denied

    111 Perimeter Road, owner Boire Properties LLC.

    City assessed it at $316,500. Owner sought $190,000. City denied, stating that sales of similar properties support the assessment


  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Not reviewed

    Richard and Julie Harrison, 24 White Oak Drive.

    City assessed it at $543,400; the couple sought $464,600.

    The proerty was "deemed denied" because assessors said they did not have enough time to evaluate it.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Approved

    7-11 Beacon Street, owner Robert Leith.

    City had it assessed for $551,800 in tax year 2008; Leith thought it was worth $360,000. The city agreed, lowering the assessed value to $392,400, a 28.9 percent drop. The assessing board and department found that Leith had provided proof it was over-assessed.
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Property owners who disagree with assessments must prove value

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-day series looking at tax burdens in the city of Nashua.

NASHUA – Last year, when there was no doubt the real-estate market had come tumbling down, more than 400 property owners sought to have their homes, commercial buildings and land reassessed for a lower value.

But of those 531 abatement requests – some applicants owned more than one property – the city Board of Assessors approved only 147, or 28 percent, according to a Telegraph review of public records.

In turn, the city rejected 384 applications – with 201 of them denied simply because the Assessing Department said it didn’t have enough assessors to fully review them in time.

These applications weren’t technically denied or approved. Rather, they fell into a category known as “deemed denied.”

So, even if a taxpayer had made a legitimate argument to have his property value lowered, he could have been rejected through no fault of his own because his application wasn’t completely reviewed.

Yet other taxpayers who did their homework had the fortune of seeing their applications make it through the full process. The city had time to review their requests and sometimes sided with their presentations.

With 75 of the 147 approved abatements, the city agreed that these taxpayers’ properties were over-assessed in value, The Telegraph review showed. The other 72 abatements were approved because of prior settlements or errors were found in the city’s records.

Still, a large majority of the applications, 72 percent, were denied for a variety of reasons.

Even though some of these taxpayers submitted what they thought were strong arguments for lower property values, the city ruled that the real-estate market indicated otherwise.

Taxpayers have the burden of proof when filing an abatement, and many failed to meet that expectation, officials at the city’s Assessing Department said.

Some applicants didn’t even try, the review found. These taxpayers didn’t bother to list the amounts they believed their properties were worth, but nonetheless still expected the city to give them a break. Local developer Vatche Manoukian, for instance, took that approach, and all of his 60 applications were summarily denied.

But many applicants who provided stronger arguments than Manoukian still had the misfortune of not having their requests reviewed before a March 1 deadline.

Deemed denied

Applications that were denied for a reason were stamped “denied.” But abatement requests that didn’t make it through the assessing process before the deadline didn’t receive any stated designation. Following state law, they were considered, by word of mouth only, to be “deemed denied.”

Kenneth Hadlock’s application fell under this category. He sought a break on his 137 Chestnut St. rental property, but his application didn’t get an “approved” or “denied” stamp. Instead, the blank spot on his application meant it was “deemed denied.”

“The fellow down at City Hall was very, very nice,” Hadlock said. “He indicated they had an awful lot to do. He told me right up front there’d be a possibility they may not get to it.

“In the end, the only way to get it was to go to Superior Court.”

Hadlock chose not to appeal the “deemed denied” verdict to Superior Court or the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals, a taxpayer’s two avenues of appeal. Without an appeal, Hadlock effectively ended his quest to drop his property value from $214,600 to his opinion of $125,000.

The city Board of Assessors has the final say on abatement requests; the Assessing Department conducts the field work. After reviewing an application and property, the department’s assessors recommend to the board whether the request should be approved or denied.

The Assessing Department said it lacked the manpower to complete the review process for Hadlock’s application and 200 other requests. These applications were thus officially “deemed denied,” deputy assessor Robert Gagne said.

The city’s four assessors have about four months – from November, when tax bills are mailed, until the March 1 deadline – to review all of the applications.

But that period falls around the same time when assessors also review building permit applications, Gagne said.

“We don’t have the resources to process all those in four months,” he said.

Because of that staffing shortage, 38 percent of abatement requests for tax year 2008 went mostly untouched.

As luck would have it for Hadlock, though, the city decreased the assessed value of his Chestnut Street property to $176,800 for tax year 2009. The same held true for other applicants who had sought abatements for 2008 and were denied.

These new assessments came as part of a larger city-wide update that saw 75 percent of residential property values hold steady or decrease. This more recent biannual update intends to put properties in line with the shrunken housing market, city officials said.

But early this year, when that update was 11 months away from taking effect, property owners had only the recourse of an abatement.

The process

The city has until July 1 to act on abatement applications. But even though requests have been either “approved,” “denied” or “deemed denied” by then, the Assessing Department will continue to review rejected applications until Sept. 1, Gagne said.

That’s because taxpayers have until that date to file an appeal to the BTLA or Superior Court. It’s unknown how many denied applicants sought an appeal before the state or the court for tax year 2008.

The city denied 32 abatement applications because the Assessing Department found that sales of similar properties had supported the city’s initial assessment.

Thirty-seven applications offered insufficient evidence to support abatement claims, the city ruled. And 19 requests were turned down because they showed no evidence to support a lower assessment.

These applications, for the most part, had taxpayers only writing examples of other property sales but not including any proof.

The burden is on the property owner to lower an assessment, Gagne said. The owner must provide sufficient proof of market value sales – and not other assessments – for similar properties, he said. Those sales must be in this region, he added.

“If people use national data, we put it to the bottom of the pile,” Gagne said.

Other applications were rejected for reasons that didn’t require much research by the Assessing Department. Six requests didn’t have the applicant’s signature. Three applications were submitted after the March 1 deadline.

But 147 applications were approved.

Assessments were favorably changed for eight taxpayers after the city noticed information on their properties was incorrect. Other abatements were granted because of previous settlement agreements.

And 75 abatements were granted because the city agreed that the properties were over-assessed. Unlike those who were denied, these taxpayers included copies of sales for similar properties and basically inundated the Assessing Department with information that supported their cases.

Some applicants pleased; others not

Robin Pike was one of those happy applicants. She had tried to reduce the assessed value of her 43 Ayer Road property from the city’s opinion of $255,000 to $189,000. The city met her request more than halfway, lowering her property value to $200,300.

Pike filed just what the Assessing Department wants: information proving market value sales of similar properties. Her home is a detached condominium, and she had found a nearly identical unit nearby that had sold for less than the city’s assessed value.

“We had got a denial letter, but that ended up not being the case,” Pike said. “They were just backlogged. We finally didn’t get the rebate until September.

“It was a long time, but we eventually got it.”

Deanna Holt also had success. The city had assessed her 25 Bedford St. property for $250,400, but Holt had felt for some time that it was worth less.

“It was a pain in the neck filling out the forms,” Holt said.

And, as a computer neophyte, Holt found it difficult to track on the Internet houses similar to hers that were sold.

“I just have a plain old Cape with no garage,” she said. “Just about everybody I know has added a garage, bathroom or something. I gave it my best shot.”

Her best shot worked, as the Assessing Department agreed with her opinion that the property was worth $210,000.

But many others weren’t as lucky.

Manoukian, for instance, saw all 60 of his abatement requests denied because he failed to include his opinion of what those properties were worth. Instead, Manoukian – who owes the city $100,000 or more in back property taxes – simply inserted tax bills for those overdue accounts.

Ernest Chiaradonna provided more evidence to support his claim than Manoukian did, but like Hadlock, his abatement request was “deemed denied.”

Until this year, Chiaradonna’s 625 South Main St. property consistently flooded after storms because it was the lowest point in the neighborhood, he said.

He has since installed a moat and well, and had to raise the house and driveway, he said. The city also helped by repairing nearby storm drains, he said.

But if he had tried to sell the property, potential buyers would have asked about the work, Chiaradonna said. The $233,000 assessed value for tax year 2008 didn’t align with the property’s true worth, he said.

But Chiaradonna’s request for a $175,000 assessment was “deemed denied.”

“I wasn’t pleased,” he said. “I gave sufficient arguments for an abatement. But I also understand they got quite a few of them, and they approved the easier ones and not the ones with more paperwork. …My case would have required thought.”

Wayne Bilodeau chose not to fight city hall at the state level after his abatement request was flat-out denied.

The city ruled that market sales supported a 2008 assessment of $316,000; Bilodeau had wanted his 18 Settlement Way property assessed for $299,000. (Its value was recently decreased to $270,200 in the city-wide assessment update.)

Bilodeau disagrees with how city officials spend tax dollars. But the exercise of assessing is separate from budgeting.

The state sets municipal tax rates, basing it on the funds cities and towns need to raise to cover their budgets. An assessing department determines only the fair market value of properties so that taxpayers, in theory, pay a fair share of taxes.

Bilodeau finds fault in that fairness argument. True, his assessment finally decreased late this year, he said, but the city tax rate also increased, from $17.55 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $19.82.

“So, we’re not saving any money,” he said.

Bilodeau will in fact save a little money.

He will pay less in property taxes for 2009, according to the city assessing Web site. His bill last year was $5,545; this year, it’s $5,355.

Jennifer DePaul and Maryalice Gill contributed to this report. Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com.