GROTON — Tired of fighting city hall, long-time West Groton resident Robert Stephens decided to leave the sidelines and take the battle to the enemy by making a run for an open seat on the Board of Assessors.
“I had an ongoing dispute with the assessors office with my own property and besides that, whenever I went down to the voting booth on Election Day, the current members of the board were always the only ones listed,” said Stephens, a resident of West Main Street. “This time, Sylvia Sangiolo was up for re-election and I thought it was time to get someone on the board who was more of an advocate for taxpayers; someone who could represent them and so forth, because in talking to the board I’ve found it to be completely absent the view of the taxpayer.”
Although Stephens has had disagreements with the assessors office over the valuation of his West Groton property stretching back almost a decade, it was the recent flare-up of anger by local residents, upset over sharp increases in their January tax bills, that gave him the impetus to run for office himself.
“I was out there with a picket sign and several elderly people approached me at the time and told me that by the time they paid for their drugs and their food bill and whatnot, they hardly had any money left to pay their taxes. That was a sad commentary on the times. The elderly, as well as the disabled, blind and veterans, do get exemptions but sometimes that’s not enough. So there are a lot of areas that can be looked at, but mostly I would like to see things frozen in place. People ask me, how are you going to do that? Well, as a member of the Board of Assessors, my signature is required (on forms submitted to the Department of Revenue) and if I don’t sign them, then nothing should happen. The signatures of all three board members is required, as I understand.”
“I think that the assessors office could have handled the changes in values completely differently,” said Stephens of the unexpected increases in assessments. “What they did was to single out certain taxpayers whose properties would go up in value and some people who would get no bump up in value at all. As I understand, that’s discriminatory. They should have looked at everybody’s property.
“I think that the Board of Assessors should be more sensitive to the taxpayers,” continued Stephens. “If someone feels as though the value of their property is not right, they should meet with board members and negotiate. The situation of Mr. Bruce Clements was a prime example of how things should not be done. The value placed on his barn was $139,000 over what it should have been. He had an attorney to represent him and won a reduction in his assessment of $139,000 but afterwards he sold the property and moved out of Groton. Later, the assessors office tried to bump the property’s assessment back up for the new owners. ..We need somebody in there with a fresh outlook.”
Stephens has fought and won a string of battles with the town’s tax collectors, he said, succeeding in winning abatements for his West Groton property in six cases out of nine attempts.
“I would like to see the values frozen and to remain as they are because Massachusetts values have gone down 10 percent, if not more,” said Stephens. “To achieve a 10 percent decrease in values is unrealistic because (town officials) can hardly run the place now. There could come a time when there’s a drop in values but for now I think maintaining the values would be the thing to do and the town will have to live around that budget.
“It’s the tax rate that is going to have to be increased to cover the budget,” said Stephens. “If you had to raise the tax rate in order to balance the budget, people would understand that more than seeing their homes going up in value in a down market. It’s unrealistic. ”
Instead of trying to raise revenues by going to the taxpayers first, “We’re going to have to dream up some other ways to come up with more revenue,” Stephens said. “For instance, the school buses which are used for the transportation of students are parked in Pepperell, so that town collects the excise taxes on them. So there may be a thought of moving them over to the high school, so Groton would receive the excise taxes.
“We need to put a people’s advocate on the Board of Assessors.”