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Lakefront property owners floored by latest tax hikes

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GROTON — Residents of the Lost Lake area were surprised and upset earlier in the month after opening their January tax bills, only to find an unwelcome uptick in assessments for their homes.

“It’s the lakefront people who really got hit,” said Old Lantern Lane resident Janet Thompson, who has owned her Lost Lake home for 40 years. “My own assessment doubled from last year. It doubled in the second half of the year but if you averaged it out for the whole year, the assessment increased by at least 60 percent more. Our building assessment stayed the same but the land assessment more than doubled.”

According to assistant assessor and Board of Assessors member Rena Swezey, the January tax bill actually covers the third quarter of the fiscal year, which began on July 1, and is the first to include accurate charges based on new tax rates approved by the Board of Selectmen in December.

Tax bills covering the first half of fiscal year 2008 were merely preliminary and based on the previous year’s rates. With the January bill, the new rate for 2008 was included as well as money left uncollected, retroactive to July 1.

“People could be taken by surprise at that,” admitted Swezey of the resulting bills.

In addition to the new rate, another reason for the increase was a recently completed revaluation process of all property in town. That resulted in sharp increases in assessments for lakefront property, such as that owned by Thompson.

“Usually when the town goes through a revaluation, there are always some areas of town that will change more than others,” explained Swezey. “Everything in Massachusetts is based on sales. Lakefront property had quite a few sales over the last two years and it has probably been selling for much more than it was previously assessed for. And in Massachusetts, where everything is based on sales, we have to be within a certain percentage of market value. In setting assessments, we can’t go below 90 percent of market value and can go as high as 110 percent. This year, we were certified at 94 percent of market value for the entire town. I think the problem is that people just don’t understand that the whole process is market-driven and, historically, Lost Lake has been at a lower percentage of assessment than the rest of the town because it has not had sales to support assessments going up till the last few years.”

Swezey said that despite an overall slowdown in the real estate market last year, lakefront property in town continued to sell strongly, with at least 10 sales in the last two years.

“People are grabbing up these cottages or else building over them and putting in year-round houses,” said Sylvia Sangiolo, a member of the Board of Assessors and herself the owner of lakefront property. “It’s a trend and it’s catching up to us.”

Sangiolo said that sales of empty, undersized lots — such as the one next door to her that went for $350,000 — was one of the factors driving local assessments upward.

“There are a number of properties that sold way above assessed value and that startled us,” said Sangiolo of the Lost Lake situation. “Apparently lakefront property has become very popular, and because we are required by law to set assessments based on market value, that’s what drives the whole evaluation process. If prices go way down, then of course assessments go way down and if prices go way up, assessments go way up. A number of people have called me about the situation and we will take a close look at it.

“Another problem we have had is that (the assessors) have changed to a different software company and there have been a lot of changes from the old company when things were not done correctly,” Sangiolo said. “So we are going to look at all of this and we’re thankful that people are very much involved and we will go over the sales figures with them. But it’s important to remember that we do not have home rule. Everything we do is done according to state regulations. We don’t assess by whimsy. We’ll do the best we can to adjudicate complaints and to be as fair as we can to everybody.”

In response to the concerns of residents such as Thompson, the assessor’s office has scheduled a public hearing on the assessment issue for the afternoon of Jan. 16 at 3 p.m.

“That is the regular meeting time of the Board of Assessors,” said Swezey about the time of the meeting, which might be difficult for residents who work. “But if we need to meet with other people in the evening, we will accommodate them.”

In the meantime, Swezey has been informing property owners who feel that their assessments have gone up too much that they do have recourse by filing for an abatement.

“I’ve been telling people to file abatements because that’s the process,” said Swezey, who noted that her assessment has gone up as well.

Swezey said residents have until Feb. 1 to file and if their request is denied by the assessor’s office, they can take their case to the state’s Appellate Tax Board.

For a short while, residents’ concerns seemed compounded by the possibility that important tax information had been lost by the assessors office; information needed to compare current assessment levels with those of past years to track the increases. But Swezey said those fears are groundless.

“The information was not lost,” said Swezey. “Our IT (Information Technology) people recreated the previous database. It was out there in database land, so we just had to put it on my desktop.”

“I went to the assessors office and talked to Rena Swezey and I decided to wait until the public hearing before taking any action,” said Thompson about the assessors’ response. “I picked up an abatement form and will wait until after the meeting on Jan. 16 to find out as much information as I could before pursuing anything.

“I talked with quite a few neighbors and heard from others,” Thompson said about the increased assessments. “I’m sure the situation is a real hardship for some people.”

Although Thompson said that she was satisfied with the explanation offered by the assessor’s office, for now, she would nevertheless hold on to her abatement request form.

“I think we want to find out more about the situation before doing anything else,” she stated.

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