Thursday, October 11, 2012

Worcester Mag - Boxed out

by Walter Bird Jr.,  Oct 10, 2012

Larry Worrick was one of more than 2,000 homeowners or businesses filing a tax abatement request this year. He took the step believing he had been overcharged on his property taxes, figuring he would either get approved or denied. What he didn’t count on was getting both.

Worrick says he was initially notified his abatement had been denied. He was later told it had been approved. In between being denied and approved, Worrick says he had to battle the assessor’s office to get to the bottom of the snafu. It wasn’t until last week, he says, that he was told a check for $601 would be in the mail. Assessor Bill Ford says the whole thing was an honest mistake—that the person who assessed Worrick’s property checked the wrong box on his form.

Mistake or no, Worrick is irate and says he believes there is “something rotten in the assessor’s office.” He believes, had he not checked for himself, he would not have learned he was owed money. He says he is just as upset at how he claims officials have treated him as he fought to determine why he was denied abatement in the first place.

“I’d like an investigation of the whole department,” says Worrick, who claims he sent letters to all city councilors and the city manager. “I think it’s corrupt.”

That, says Ford, is ridiculous.

“Where is the corruption? Mistakes can occur, but that’s not corruption,” says Ford.

It all started, according to Worrick, when his property taxes increased by $601. He says he requested an assessment of his house, which was done near the end of June. He filed an abatement request on the basis of that assessment, believing his house had been overvalued. On Aug. 10, Worrick says, he was notified his request had been denied. At that point, he asked for a copy of the assessor’s report and was given what is called a field card. The card listed the current value of the house as $139,800—a decrease from the 2011 assessed value of $149,400. Worrick says he could not understand why the property value would go down, but he would be denied abatement.

“I spoke to Mr. Ford,” says Worrick, explaining that he was helped during the process by real estate agent Joan Crowell. She has sent out emails under the heading “AWARE,” or Accurate Worcester Assessments on Real Estate, detailing Worrick’s situation, but never naming him. Crowell says she helped other applicants file abatement requests.

“He was just sugar-coating everything,” Worrick says of Ford. “I pulled out the field report. He got extremely upset.”

A short while later, on Thursday, Aug. 23, Worrick says he went to see Ford at his office. The assessor was on the phone for over an hour and Worrick eventually left. He says he sent a letter to Chief Financial Officer Tom Zidelis and City Manager Mike O’Brien. Zidelis called him on Aug. 30 right before the Labor Day weekend, Worrick says, telling him he would call again the following Tuesday.

“He didn’t call,” Worrick says. “I called his office several times, and he never called back. Mr. O’Brien didn’t even have the decency to reply.”

In the meantime, Worrick says he mailed a letter on Oct. 1 to all city councilors. He says Councilor Rick Rushton called him and said he would speak with Zidelis. On Wednesday, Oct. 3, according to Worrick, Zidelis called him and said the city owed him an apology and that his abatement had been approved.

“Of 11 members of the council, [Rushton] is the only one who came through,” Worrick says.

Ford acknowledges a denial notice was sent to Worrick. That form informed Worrick his request had been denied by a vote of assessors. Ford says there was no vote because there is no three-person board—most large cities, he says, do not have them. The denial notice is a standard state form, Ford says, and was only sent because of an error made on the original application for abatement. At the bottom of the application, under the section for assessor’s use only, there are three boxes: Granted, Denied and Deemed Denied. A checkmark was inadvertently placed in the Denied box, Ford says, adding Worrick’s is the only case where that happened this year.

“It was a mistake,” he says, noting there are nearly 48,000 properties in the city.

“When you’re dealing with properties at the numbers we were doing, mistakes happen. We have a staff of nine people. Understand that accidents will happen.”

Ford’s office received 2,395 qualified abatement applications this year. Of them 1,112 were approved. When a denial is made, a crosscheck is performed to ensure it was accurate, he says. Ford disputes Worrick’s contention that no one would have noticed the error, saying: “We would have found it when we did the cross-check. We did the first two batches of denials before we did a cross-check, so he was sent a denial notice.”

Ford says Worrick should get his abatement check within four to six weeks. The checks are sent out of the treasurer’s office.

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