Halfway there: property revaluation going according to schedule

Vision Government Solutions, operating out of town hall, says it has inspected half of the properties in town. (Photo-- Miriam Kelliher)

Vision Government Solutions, operating out of town hall, says it has inspected half of the properties in town. (Photo– Miriam Kelliher)

“Trust but verify” could be the motto of the town’s ongoing property revaluation, now in its data collection stage, the first of five planned phases of the project.

Last month, the office of Fairfield Tax Assessor Donald Ross began holding neighborhood meetings explaining the project’s scope, and “trust but verify” describes not only what officials are telling residents to do before admitting inspectors inside their homes, but also the town’s rationale for commissioning a “full physical valuation,” as opposed to the “limited data verification” the town undertook in 2010. That assessment was based largely on mail-in questionnaires homeowners filled out about their property.

Inspector credentials

Homeowners have a number of ways of ensuring that tax surveyors are who they say they are. The assessor’s office says property inspectors, or data collectors, as they’re officially called, are wearing clothing and carrying badges identifying them as Vision Government Solutions employees. The town hired the private company for much of the work associated with the revaluation, including interior inspections of homes.

Vision employees also carry documentation from the town indicating their association with the project, and their names and vehicles are on file with the assessor’s office and the police department. The assessor’s office advises residents doubting an inspector’s credentials to call them, at (203) 256-3189; the police department non-emergency number (203) 254-4800; or the Vision office in town hall, at (203) 256-3189.

Ross said cautious Fairfielders have been calling to verify inspectors’ authenticity. “The system has been working well,” he said. Thus far, there have been no reports of  people improperly claiming to be inspectors to gain entry to homes.

Rationale

The second point related to trust and verification has to do with the town’s reliance on questionnaires during the last property revaluation.

Connecticut law requires a town-wide property revaluation every five years, and according to Ross, the recommended practice is to conduct a full physical revaluation, with interior inspections, every 10 years. Fairfield’s last full physical revaluation took place in 1993, meaning more than 20 years have passed since people’s houses were thoroughly and objectively inspected for tax purposes.

According to First Selectman Mike Tetreau, in the 1990s, “during the whole do-it-yourself boom, a lot of people did do it themselves but didn’t necessarily file all the proper permits.”

While Tetreau said “most folks will be honest, most folks will have pulled the permits,” the town is doing everything it can “to make sure everyone is paying their fair share — not a penny more, but not a penny less.”

Another reason the town decided to authorize the more comprehensive type of assessment was widespread dissatisfaction with the results of the last appraisal.

Tetreau said after the 2010 revaluation, there were a large number of appeals of the appraisals, and the town “wants to cut down on those” this time around. According to Ross, 550 appeals were filed with the town’s Board of Assessment Appeals, and 200 appeals were filed in Superior Court challenging the 2010 assessments.

From Ross’s perspective, a full physical revaluation is the right way to go to get the fairest, most accurate data. Ross noted that there hasn’t been a full data revaluation since before hurricanes Irene and Sandy, which, he said, “did have a great impact on many, many properties,” changing their physical characteristics.

Half finished

The first phase of the revaluation, the data collection phase, is scheduled to take one year. Begun last  July, Vision Government Solutions project manager June Perry said the project is “right on schedule,” with its team of six data collectors having inspected half of the approximately 21,600 properties in town subject to assessment.

Given the variability of homeowners’ schedules and the fact that many people work outside their homes, Perry said the Vision crew operates with a goal of inspecting three out of every 10 houses they approach on their first attempt. When homeowners are absent at the first approach, Perry said, Vision sends a follow-up letter requesting an appointment, with a goal of five inspections per every 10 letters.
Making appointments available on Saturdays, the crew is hoping to be finished with inspections by July 1.

Updated or old-style

What exactly do inspectors take note of, when they’re looking inside the show homes, and neighborhood eyesores, of Fairfield? Perry said, “We do look, but we don’t scrutinize.”

The condition and style of many house elements is already contained on the property record, or field card, on file with the town, Perry said. Vision inspectors bring those cards with them when they go into houses,  and verify or update the information they contain.

“On the field card it will say if a kitchen is average for the age of the property, old-style or modern,” Perry said. Revaluations also take into account such features as heating systems, central air conditioning, finished attics and basements, and wall material — drywall, plaster, or plywood panelling, Perry said.

“There are many data elements,” Ross said, and the question and answer sheet his office is distributing at its neighborhood meetings lists location, land, building size and age, construction quality, topography and zoning restrictions as some “among many other factors external and internal to a property” that bear on its assessed value.

Integrity

There’s nothing in the law that requires a homeowner to let a data collector inside to look around. Ross said if at the end of the data collection phase there are properties whose interiors have gone uninspected, the office will rely on its external examination and measurement of the buildings in issue, along with information provided by the homeowners in questionnaires.

And if those owners fail to fill out questionnaires, Ross said, he’ll have to depend on the information already on file with the town for those properties. The appraisal will be “based on data that exists,” he said.

When asked what incentive homeowners have for allowing data collectors inside their homes, Tetreau said, “To some extent, we’re relying on the integrity of the town residents.” But he also noted, “it makes it harder to appeal your appraisal if you didn’t let the appraiser in.”

And the assessor’s revaluation information sheet points out an addition potential pitfall of failing to let the inspectors in, noting, “sales of properties with inaccurate data listed on the public record can often be problematic for sellers.”

What’s next

While the data collection phase continues, phase two, “market analysis,” gets under way as well. During this second phase of the revaluation, appraisers with both the assessor’s office and Vision Government Solutions study property sales during the two-and-a-half-year period before October 2015 “to determine where the actual increases and decreases in value are occurring” throughout town, according to the assessor’s information sheet.

The meat of the matter — your home’s assessment — gets decided in phase three. It’s called the valuation phase, and draws on information collected in the first two stages to determine the value of individual properties based on building features, land value, and market trends.

A double-check of the values developed in the valuation phase happens in the next phase, “field review.” According to the assessor’s office, during this phase, experienced appraisers examine properties in the field, confirming the uniformity and accuracy of assessed values.

Homeowners are scheduled to receive their new assessments toward the end of November 2015, at which point they get a chance to contest the valuations during the informal and formal hearings of phase five.

Informal hearings consist of a meeting with a Vision staff member in late November or December 2015, and can result in an assessment change.

Homeowners not satisfied by the outcome of an informal hearing can progress to a formal hearing,  conducted by the town Board of Assessment Appeals according to statute. Appeals to the board must be filed with the assessor’s office by Feb. 20, 2016.

Board of Assessment decisions can themselves be appealed to Superior Court.

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