NEWBURY — An Appellate Tax Board decision requiring the town to award property tax abatements to six Northern Boulevard homeowners has resulted in a flurry of inquiries from other Plum Island residents looking for a break on their tax bills.
The tax board pointed to "severe erosion on Plum Island" in its June 29 decision to grant 15 percent abatements to the six homeowners.
The ruling read that "an environment stigma in the form of severe erosion and ocean surges coupled with property loss and damage and prominent and notorious media reports" is likely adversely impacting the marketability and value of the properties."
"Since the ruling was made public, many residents have inquired as to how to get an abatement," said Carrie Keville, the town's administrative assessor, who has fielded most of the calls.
Frank "Budd" Kelley, chairman of the Board of Assessors, said the town is now working to pay out abatements for fiscal 2011 on 14 Plum Island properties — some on Northern Boulevard and most on Annapolis Way.
The Board of Assessors is also taking a look at its property assessments on Plum Island for 2012 in hopes of minimizing the number of abatements it has to issue down the road next year.
"We are working to be proactive with the 2012 assessments, particularly with the Plum Island oceanfront homes, taking into account the Appellate Tax Board ruling and stigma assigned," Kelley said. "In this way, we will adjust the values of the homes prior to sending tax bills so that there will be less need for abatements."
Because of all the questions, town assessors this week said they thought it was important to explain the abatement process to residents, starting with an understanding of the assessment process.
According to Keville, the 3,245 taxable properties in Newbury, which include those on Plum Island, are assessed every year in January, but the values assigned are not attached to the homes until the following year, in accordance with state law. For example, the tax bills that go out in February 2012 are reflective of the assessment date of Jan. 1, 2011.
Newbury's three elected assessors review sales and the market every year to ensure taxpayers provide their fair share of the cost of local government, in proportion to the amount of money their property is worth. The assessors are required to send the values to the state Department of Revenue for certification every three years.
"We don't have a lot of latitude with these values, as we are heavily scrutinized by the Department of Revenue," assessor Sanford Wechsler said. "We didn't devise the assessment methodology, but by law, we have to follow it."
Values are set on properties via mass appraisals applied to groups of like homes. For example, Kelley said the assessors might assign the same value to all homes in the same neighborhood that have two bathrooms, three bedrooms, a two-car garage and a similar amount of land.
Every 10 years, communities are required to physically inspect every home, although assessors don't have to enter all of them. The next 10-year cycle in Newbury will be completed in 2016.
The assessors encouraged homeowners to review their property values when the February tax bills are issued.
"This is the time to question an assessment and apply for an abatement if the owner believes that the property has not been fairly assessed," Keville said.
By law, assessors have three months to take action on abatement applications.
The money to pay abatements comes from the town's overlay fund, which is generally funded at $65,000 a year and is part of the budget voted on at the annual town meetings. About half of the fund pays for tax exemptions, such as those for veterans, the elderly or disabled.
Typically, about 50 abatement applications are filed each year, most of which are denied due to lack of sufficient evidence of erroneous assessment, Kelley said.
"With abatements, the burden of proof lies with the resident who must show through market sales or similar assessments, in the same time frame the assessors use, that the value of their home is different than the assessment," he said.
If an abatement is granted, the homeowner receives money back from the town, and the assessed value of the home is reduced to reflect the abatement.
Kelley said the concern is that the overlay fund could be exhausted rather quickly, which would leave the assessors in the position of asking town meeting for more money to fund the account the following fiscal year.
"Our goal is to have extra money in the overlay fund at the end of the fiscal year because then we can transfer it to the general budget for the benefit of the entire town," he said.
Kelley encouraged residents to check their property cards on the town's website at www.townofnewbury.org under online property assessment data to be sure their home is represented properly, providing for a most accurate assessment.