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Why your property taxes went up — or down

This story will be printed in two parts. The second part will appear in the issue of Dec. 1. CORNWALL — About two dozen people attended a revaluation workshop at Town Hall Saturday morning, Nov. 12. It was the second opportunity for Assessor Barbara Bigos to help people understand how their property is assigned a value to be taxed.As much as property assessments are guided by laws and formulas, assessments fall into what is essentially a big gray area that relies on knowing the ups and downs of the local real estate market, knowing what makes a home or land desirable in the current market and having personal knowledge of properties.This is why Bigos conducts her own revaluations, rather than leaving it to an outside contractor. It is an arduous process but she enjoys it. With a master’s degree in statistics and a background as a high school math teacher, she is uniquely well-suited to the task. Still, a lot of thinking on one’s feet comes into play.“I’m the one who has to have answers for people when the assessments are done, and I want them to be right,” Bigos said of her zeal to do the reval. “It also saves the town a lot of money.”Bigos has completed the initial phase of the process: setting values for all taxable properties in town. This time it was particularly difficult. Property assessments are based on fair market value, which is based on property sales for the past two years or so. There is very little solid information to go on, and Bigos knows there are huge anomalies in the data —making it an inaccurate barometer.Many tax bills are likely to go down, which likely accounts for the small crowds at the assessment workshop. Hundreds came for the 2006 revaluation workshops, when most expected to see an increase in their assessment.Come ask questionsBetween now and the end of the year, Bigos is seeing property owners by appointment to discuss any issues they have. That can include corrections and adjustments, or a simple desire to further understand how she arrived at a property’s value. She is allowed by law (and willing to) make changes for the sake of greater accuracy.“I really want these to be right,” Bigos said of the field cards (which include all of a property’s data; the cards are kept in the assessor’s office and are public information) handed out to property owners as they arrived at the workshop. “I want you to help me be as accurate and as fair to everyone as possible. Please tell me what I don’t know about your property.”Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 20, applications may be filed with the Board of Assessment Appeals. All appeals are heard in March, but in the past Bigos has usually already ironed out most wrinkles.The town budgeting process will have begun by then, with the new grand list factoring into decisions on spending and on the setting of a new mill rate (see sidebar). Tax bills for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2012, will be based on the new property assessments.State statute dictates revaluations be done every five years. That is a recent change from the 10-year cycle. Recent decades have brought big swings in the real estate market. As property values rose and fell, many homeowners ended up spending years paying either far more or far less in taxes than they should have, while waiting on the next adjustment.Bigos conducted the 2006 revaluation in Cornwall, shortly after she was hired by the town to be its assessor. The grand list (the total value of properties) doubled. Adjustments Bigos called “dramatic” were a combination of a “crazy real estate market” and field cards that had not been properly updated over the years. Bigos visited every property, at least once, and focused on developing accurate cards. For this year’s reval, she focused more on office work: determining fair market values and continuing to fine-tune each field card. Updating the field cardEach property has a field card, and all pertinent information is there, including details of acreage, number of buildings and building sizes, improvements, easements and other deed restrictions and an analysis of the location (which factors in greatly to the final value).For many reasons, information can be wrong or omitted. Bigos does not expect people to come to her with corrections that might increase their taxes, but she hopes they would be honest enough to do so. It has happened. Among the difficulties is that the assessor might not be able to see the inside of a home, and cannot demand entry. At times it is necessary to guess the number of bathrooms. Assessors can and do peek into windows when all else fails. It’s simply about being accurate and fair to all the taxpayers in a town.Bigos does not soft-peddle her approach. She warns that no one is going to “pull the wool over her eyes” as to property improvements. And as much as she might sympathize with someone’s economic plight, her job is to consider only the property itself, not who lives there, who owns it, or their financial situation.“People come to me all the time with stories. They are out of work, they’ve been sick, they inherited the property and can’t afford it. I cannot be concerned with any of that. I would actually prefer not to know who owns it.”She keeps a file of notes on things she sees and hears about properties that might affect them at the next reval. Building permits are not always sought for improvement jobs, or make their way into the property records. Each field card has a section for listing property improvements so that adjustments can be made at the next opportunity.

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