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BROCKTON

Tax bill mistake baffles residents

Error inflated property tenfold

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2012
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A wayward decimal point has caused 20,000 city residents to question their eyesight after third-quarter property tax bills arrived in mailboxes last week listing 10 times the acreage they actually own.

The mistake by Kelly & Ryan Associates, which prints the city’s tax bills, follows a heated two-year dispute over water bills that reached as high as $100,000.

The latest mistake has prompted concern that Brockton officials just can’t get it right, said activist Kate Archard, whose own bill showed she now owns 1.65 acres. The city may not have actually printed the bills, she said, but wasn’t anyone around to double-check them?

“We are just at an incredible level of service here in this city,’’ said Archard, mocking the series of errors she and others say is an embarrassment.

Add in a recent tax increase on properties whose assessed values already exceed what they are worth in this economy and the problem compounds, said Archard, who narrowly lost a recent City Council race.

“It’s insulting,’’ she said. “Brockton is not a Podunk town that can’t rub two nickels together; it is a well-paid government. Why are we putting up with these nincompoops?’’

Concerned residents staged a protest at the swearing-in ceremony of Mayor Linda Balzotti and City Council members on Monday, and unhappy taxpayers unleashed a siege of phone calls demanding an explanation.

One was Dick Zaccaro, whose .32-acre lot abutting D.W. Field Park in Brockton was listed on the bill due Feb. 1 as 3.2 acres.

“I thought maybe they were giving me some land,’’ he said wryly. “My understanding is the chief financial officer outsourced the printing of the bills. I think he should have checked them. It gives people a lack of confidence in the management team.’’

Brockton already has the highest tax rate around with property values that don’t support it, Zaccaro said. The city’s new residential rate is $16.14, up 85 cents from last year, and a total 10 percent over two years. Compare that with residential rates in surrounding towns, like Avon, at $12.27; Stoughton, at $12.31; and Easton, at $14.51, he said.

Further, Zaccaro said, the city lowered the assessed property value last year by only 9 percent when the market was off by at least 30 percent, he said.

“Taxpayers are the shareholders of the city,’’ he said. “What are we getting in return?’’

Balzotti said the printing mistake and its timing were unfortunate and officials may look at whether to use the printing company again. The amount of taxes owed and property values were correct, though, she said.

Balzotti said the city’s tax collector sends information electronically to Kelley & Ryan for inclusion on tax bills. A random sample of those bills - both residential and commercial - is sent to the city for review each financial quarter.

The samples are checked by both the tax collectors’ and assessors’ offices for calculation errors - value, tax rate, total tax, and date. The city then approves the sample bills before they are mailed, she said.

City officials completed an upgrade in October that increased the number of digits that can be listed after the decimal point in the acreage content field, she said. Kelley & Ryan was notified but bills weren’t printed until the tax rate was set by the City Council, she said.

To avoid a recurrence, Balzotti said city staff will now review each and every data field on the property tax bill samples prior to approval. James J. Broduer Jr., Kelley & Ryan Associates’ vice president for operations, said a letter of apology will be sent to residents.

City officials said the state Department of Revenue considers the bills valid because there are no misleading errors in the value, tax, due date, or abatement guidelines on them. Mistakes in the acreage field will be corrected by the time fourth-quarter bills are issued.

Balzotti rebuffed criticism about the tax rate, saying any increase pales in comparison with the $10 million the city has lost in state aid since 2008. “There was no fluff in our budget,’’ she said.

The water bill flap happened when hundreds of customers received huge retroactive water bills to correct years of estimated readings. In one case, a single mother got an invoice for more than $100,000 - she recently settled with the city and agreed to pay $3,400. Others are still negotiating settlements.

Councilor at Large Jass Stewart posted updates all day Tuesday about the tax bill mistake on both his website and Facebook page as Balzotti and others released their responses. He said the error was unfortunate “and also makes City Hall look incompetent.’’

“It also causes an additional lack of confidence in city government from the point of view of taxpayers,’’ Stewart said in an e-mail. “With that said, I don’t believe it’s a systemic problem, and I think the mayor’s office acted quickly to respond to the issue.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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