AMESBURY — In an effort to give more transparency to home assessments, some of Amesbury's municipal councilors voiced their support for a workshop during which assessor Mary Marino would answer residents' questions about their historical status, property values and taxes.
The workshop idea is a response to the unhappy voices heard by the council at their meeting Tuesday.
During the public comment portion of the evening, Amesbury residents spoke of the difficulties they have had in determining where their assessed home values and property taxes came from.
Property taxes and the values used to determine them have been at the forefront of many minds since some 600 residents saw their assessed values, and thus their property taxes, increase when their homes were classified as historic by the assessors office. That classification has since been rescinded, but the documents used to determine that classification are still being questioned by some.
"I'm concerned about the process used to arrive at these numbers," said Paul Sullivan of 271 Main St. "I've asked direct questions of our assessor and have been given misinformation. Our current assessor has also determined some homes to be historical using a document that shouldn't be used as a guideline, resulting in homes being over-assessed. I'm hoping for a transparent process in the assessors office, where the average person can determine the value of their home."
For the past five years, Sullivan said the town was assessing his 1820s-era home as a "historical" structure that's worth more than an average Amesbury home, upping its value by about $20,000 some years. He is seeking reimbursement from the town for the years he was overcharged and is now pursuing his case with the Appellate Tax Board.
Marino said the document in question was already in the office when she took over the role of Amesbury's assessor.
"I was told it came from the Amesbury Public Library. I'm not sure of the technical name for it, but the work was already under way when I took over for Theresa Leblanc, the acting interim assessor," she said.
Marino said she was waiting to hear from the council on when the workshop would take place, but that she'd be willing to participate.
"I think education is always a good thing," she said.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer voiced his support of Marino at Tuesday's meeting, saying assessing property is not an easy task and Marino is simply doing her job to abide by the assessing guidelines of the state.
"She's a professional who understands her job," Kezer said.
Lars Johannessen, a past member of the Historical Commission, said the documents Sullivan is referring to were three separate surveys of old homes, done in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Johannessen said the "windshield surveys," dubbed as such because they rely on observations that can often be made from inside a vehicle, are incomplete because funding ran out.
They were never meant to give the town anything other than an inventory of Amesbury's older homes, should historical districts ever be created in Amesbury.
Currently, the downtown is the only area in Amesbury to be given historical district status.
"Just because it's an older house or an older style like a Victorian doesn't make it historical. It's the difference between style and category. If it's historic, it has to be proven," Johannessen said.
Kim Springis bought her home at 173 Lion's Mouth Road in October of 2007. Like Sullivan, Springis said she is curious about the impact of the historical designation on her taxes and she wants more information about where her home's assessment value and property taxes come from.
"I went to Town Hall to get an explanation of how it was assessed and to ask about the historical classification. I was told it had no effect on my taxes. I have to question that," Springis said.
Dave Pike of Main Street echoed Springis' sentiments, saying he was eager to learn more about the process about historical designations and how they affect assessment and taxation.
"Now that the historical designation has been removed, I'm looking for a clear, forthright and honest approach from the assessor's office. I have no issue with paying my taxes, but I want to know where they come from. If we could understand these bills, we'd be more willing to accept them or correct them, whatever the case may be," Pike said.
District 1 Councilor Robert Gilday assured the residents that their voices were not falling on deaf ears.
"It's a complicated issue," he said, going on to recommend a workshop in January when citizens can come prepared with specific questions and have an open discussion with Marino and the rest of the assessing office.
Councilor Derek Kimball agreed, saying he empathized and agreed that open and transparent assessors meetings are needed.
A date for the assessment workshop has yet to be finalized.