More than a dozen distempered people sat in the third floor meeting room at Hingham Town Hall on Friday morning, complaining of overly inflated property values and unfair taxes.
The two-hour session was the first of what town officials expect will be many discussions on property taxes in the coming months, as residents seek to understand the triannual revaluation on their property, an increase in the tax rate, and for some, an increase in taxes.
Although property values have overall declined three percent townwide, some residents are feeling the added burden of higher valuations, and thus substantially higher property taxes.
“I’ve talked to people that have had such increases that they’ve almost collapsed,” said Carol Myer, a Hingham Journal reporter and a Hingham resident who has struggled with tax increases. “This is an unprecedented problem here. This is threatening people’s stability.”
Numerous residents in the room complained that their taxes had increased beyond the normal rates, some saying that property values had doubled in a down economy, and their taxes along with it.
Barbara Hood, a Central Street resident who has lived at the property since childhood, said the revaluation at her house was inaccurate.
The people who did an inspection on her land never came to talk to her, she said, and a town-owned creek in her backyard has damaged her property. Yet her valuation doesn’t represent that, she said, so her property is considered to be worth more than it really is.
Selectman Bruce Rabuffo, along with Town Administrator Ted Alexiades, Chairman of the Board of Assessors Greg Hall, and Director of Assessing Richard Nowlan, explained that property values are an issue of supply and demand -- as land was more developed in Hingham, each parcel was deemed more valuable because there was less of it to buy.
Sales in neighborhoods, more accurate representation of the market price for comparable homes, and even changes in records due to more diligent inspections can all adjust property rates as well, officials said.
But they noted that errors in the computer system or even in note-taking could mean someone’s house was valuated improperly.
“Mistakes happen,” Alexiades said. “I’m not as worried about the mistakes as I am about how it's managed when it happens.”
The town is looking at any errors residents bring them to find out where problems occurred and who else may have been affected. Furthermore, anyone who thinks their bill is mistaken is encouraged to come to the assessor’s office to file an abatement.
The higher tax rate was another trouble factor for residents.
A small part of it reflects the start of repayment on bonds for the new East Middle School. But residents also are carrying a bigger tax load due to a decline in commercial property values.
According to Rabuffo, there has been a 13 percent decline in the commercial property “As some commercial entities default, their tax burden falls onto everyone else,” Rabuffo said.
For example, Linden Ponds’ valuation drop – from $180 million to $145 million – had a significant impact on residential homeowners, who had to make up that $35 million difference.
“Communities are becoming partners with these businesses. If they fail, it impacts [the residents],” Alexiades said.
Although some residents are extremely vocal about their substantially increased property values, they are not in the majority, Nowlan said.
According to Treasurer Jean Montgomery’s records, 50 percent of houses saw an increase in property value, and 50 percent saw a decrease. Even then, few saw a large increase.
“There are a lot of complaints or concern, it goes without saying. But out of 6100 residential properties, it’s only a small percentage that was really affected,” Nowlan said.
Overall, officials tried to spell out that they weren’t trying to squeeze more money out of their residents unjustly.
“We’re trying to get an equitable decision,” Rabuffo said. “We’re trying to do it fairly and accurately.”
If anything, inaccurate valuation reporting only hurts the town, as approved abatements end up taking money out of the town’s tax levy.
“It’s in the best interest of the town to get it right,” Alexiades said.
Still, if residents are unhappy with their valuation and think something is amiss – especially if residents feel they cannot sell their house for what it is valued at and/or if their neighbors’ similar properties are valued differently – the can seek an abatement.
Abatements can be filed through the assessor’s office up until Feb. 1.
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