Friday, May 18, 2012

GoLocalWorcester: Questions Answered – and Raised – over Worcester Property Values

By Walter Bird Jr., GoLocalWorcester Reporter

City councilors wanted answers regarding the mystery surrounding the manual overrides of property valuations being blamed for this year’s sky-high assessments.

“We’re in limbo,” said At-Large Councilor and former Mayor Konstantina Lukes. “I’m not sure it’s any clearer than before.”

Lukes spoke to GoLocalWorcester after a marathon session that saw councilors tackle the first part of City Manager Michael O’Brien’s fiscal 2013 budget, before heading into a regular council meeting. There, the City Manager tried to explain why so many property values – during the city’s triennial revaluation – have doubled, tripled and, in some cases, quadrupled.

O’Brien was armed with a report councilors had been anxiously awaiting. But it ended up raising a lot of questions. For example, the council had asked for a list of the approximately 2,000 valuations of commercial and industrial properties that O’Brien had said were manually overridden by the city’s previous assessor. O’Brien provided records from 1998 – one year before current Assessor William Ford came on board – detailing 2,155 properties for which an override was entered.

Manual overrides are a legal practice used to account for any number of factors in a valuation, such as a change of building use or for a property that had become vacant. According to O’Brien, the overrides were done in two main categories: Functional Obsolescence and Economic Obsolescence. The former refers to a reduction in property value due to an inability to perform the function for which it was designed. The latter is a reduction in the value of a property because of effects, events or conditions not controlled by the current use or condition of the property.

In an accompanying report provided to councilors, O’Brien pointed out that the percentage adjustments for economic and functional obsolescence were, in some cases, as high as 100 percent. Some councilors have questioned the overrides. No specifics

The problem, at least for Lukes, was that the report O’Brien put forth did not mention specific properties or their owners. Instead, properties were identified by their location on a city map, their block and lot.

“I wanted names,” Lukes said. “I wanted property owners, not blocks and lots.”

What she walked away with instead, Lukes said, was the feeling that “there’s another player here.” She was referring to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR), the agency Councilor George Russell previously accused of forcing the city to adopt a new valuation method that he said inflated property valuations. The DOR has denied any such action, while acknowledging it played a huge part in reviewing the assessing systems and their ultimate overhaul.

In his accompanying report to the council, O’Brien said, “The Commonwealth’s Department of Revenue’s (DOR) oversight was present throughout this process, conducting detailed data quality reviews of all categories and classes of properties. I am confident that based on this extensive undertaking and the checks and balances that have been put into place, that this is the most current and consistent assessment database and system we have had as a City.”
DOR involved

In addition to asking for a list of the manually overridden properties, councilors had also asked for a report on the legal responsibility of the DOR. In his report, O’Brien said the DOR’s Bureau of Local Assessment “is responsible for regulation, oversight, training and technical assistance to cities and towns in the areas of real and personal property valuation and classification. Consequently, one of the main duties of the Bureau is to review and re-certify each municipality's property values once every three years to ensure they are at full and fair market value.”

Based on the DOR’s apparently close involvement, Lukes does not believe there was anything illegal about the manual overrides.

“I think if something was illegal, there would have been action taken,” Lukes said. “I’ve been poking around, but I’m only scratching the surface. But I don’t believe there was anything illegal.”

Former Assessor Bob Allard has denied any wrongdoing and has refuted assertions that he performed more than 2,000 manual overrides.

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