‘A perfect storm of errors’: Taxes are expected to rise in Taunton after an assessing tech snafu

Homeowners are anticipated to pay an additional $78 this year because of the error, officials say.

–George Rizer for the Boston Globe

A seemingly small line error has created a major problem for Taunton’s assessors — and it’s going to cost taxpayers.

Officials were forced to essentially reboot their billing process after a software upgrade meant that local public school property was added to the list of taxable properties, they say.

The snafu came when the non-profit Head Start building, adjacent to Taunton High School, was added to the system as a taxable property, which generated invoices for all of the school buildings at the site, Assessor Richard Conti told the City Council last week.

The assessed value of Taunton’s commercial and industrial properties shot up by $136,846,200, at least on paper. The school property was then logged as being on the hook for $4.2 million in taxes for what is nontaxable property, Conti said.

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The oversight was only caught when the school superintendent sent the bills back to the assessor’s office.

“This all happened as a result of a perfect storm of errors that went into sequence that no one has ever experienced before,” Conti said during the Feb. 18 meeting. “This happened in a manner that none of our peers, none of the people in the Department of Revenue would have caught because of the software.”

The bills taxpayers received in December are incorrect, Conti said. While the assessed values listed on those invoices remain accurate, the amount of taxes due do not, he said.

Taxpayers, however, must pay up to fix the situation.

Local officials must now navigate a legal remedy by calling on state lawmakers to pass a pending home-rule petition that will authorize the Department of Revenue to allow the city to set a revised tax rate, Conti said. That proposal, filed earlier this month, was sent to the Joint Committee on Revenue for review.

“It seems to be on a fast track,” Conti said.

Pending the bill’s approval, officials say the average single family property owner can expect to pay $4,188 for the year — $78 more than the previous $4,110 bill issued on a property worth $276,633 — the average assessed value of a single family property, according to Conti.

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Taxpayers can anticipate the increase during the fourth quarter, Conti said. The corrected bills will be sent out as soon as possible, he said.

Explaining to the council what exactly happened, Conti said the error slipped by the assessor’s office, the state Division of Local Services, and the Department of Revenue.

Councilors, however, remained baffled by the disparity.

Councilor David Pottier highlighted how Taunton’s commercial and industrial properties appreciation rose by 3 percent in fiscal year 2019 before jumping up 26.5 percent in 2020 because of the error.

“I would have thought that would have driven someone to say, ‘Gee what the hell is going on with the number?’” Pottier said.

Now, taxpayers will end up paying $35 more on average than they did last year, he said.

Councilor Deborah Carr raised similar questions: “When the value went up $136 million … no body sitting there said, ‘Where that come from?’”

“Everybody said that,” Conti responded.

Accessors ultimately found other nearby communities experienced similar increases, he said. Officials were fooled by “an invisible software error,” he said.

“The Department of Revenue has no mechanism to discover this kind of an error,” he said at one point during the meeting. “The City of Taunton had no mechanism to discover this kind of an error.”

The city’s vendor recognized the mistake, corrected it, and sent out a new software patch to fix the oversight, assessor Lisa LaBelle said.

According to Conti, assessors have spent recent weeks developing their own internal system of double checking their work — one that goes beyond what they were taught by their state counterparts.

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“We are getting very good at generating reports to cross check fields of the data to ensure that we have pure data,” he said. “We live for that.”

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