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Assessments have been ‘tweaked’

“Town of Ridgefield,” the letters from the assessor’s office announce. “This is not a bill…”

They’ve been quietly arriving in the mail: “Amended” revaluation notices that change homeowners’ property assessments, and how their tax bills will look, starting in July 2013. They look almost exactly like the original revaluation notices that went out in December — but the numbers are different.

“It’s a work in progress right until the very end,” Assessor Al Garzi said of the town-wide revaluation, required by the state every five years and now nearing completion.

“The assessments are not final until Jan. 31, so we’re reviewing the sales,” he said. “Everything is reviewed a second time.”

Not everyone has had changes to the new assessments that went out in December — and are for the Oct. 1 2012 Grand List, which will be the basis of taxes in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

But many did. And the notices of amended valuation came as a surprise to some property owners, who thought their assessment was done when the first revaluation notice arrived in December.

“When the notices go out, they’re just an indication: Here’s the number,” Mr. Garzi said of the first round of notices in December. “At that point, we start hearing from everybody.”

And that prompts further work.

For many properties, the initial revaluation numbers   have been changed based on more recent sales in a neighborhood affecting the calculations. The assessor’s office may have taken a second look at a neighborhood — often in response to complaints.

The revaluations are based on the prices that similar houses in the same neighborhood have drawn in actual sales. But in the slow market of recent years, there’s a smaller base of sales information to drawn from.

“The market, there were not as many sales as needed,” Mr. Garzi said.

The initial notices were based on sales through Oct. 1, 2012. The more recent amended notices calculate in any additional information from sales in October, November, December and January.

“In areas where there were no sales, we now have sales,” Mr. Garzi said.

The informal appeal hearings that began right after the December notices were mailed out led to reconsideration not only of a particular property that was appealed, but of the area around it.

“If someone came to a hearing and they point things out, we look at the entire neighborhood, because we have to get it right for five years,” Mr. Garzi said. “Everything was reviewed, every single one was reviewed a second time. No notice is final until the Grand List is signed”   Jan. 31.

Mr. Garzi didn’t have a number for how many properties received change notices. But there are 9,500 properties on the tax list, and he guessed that close to a third of them might have been changed.

“Some are less, some are more,” Mr. Garzi said.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said that this year’s revaluation has a very different feel from those of previous years. Rather than showing the continuation of a decades-old trend of ever-increasing property values, it documents the sudden plunge in prices that followed the fiscal crisis of 2008.

“So, the relativity is: How much did your property go down?” Mr. Marconi said.

People unhappy with — or simply startled by — the numbers on their December notices, called their concerns to the assessor’s attention.

For the first time, “more than a minority have said ‘My assessment really is too low,’ ” Mr. Garzi said.

“This is the fifth reassessment I’ve done here. I don’t remember — maybe one or two people have said ‘that’s too low’ over the years. But this time, perhaps because real wealth was being lost, people were more close to their numbers. Some people when they got their notices, they said, ‘That’s not right.’ ”

“If he receives a complaint from a neighborhood,” Mr. Marconi said, “he’ll not only look at the individual complaint, but the neighborhood, and take a looks at it.

“So when people do receive an additional letter, it’s because that second or third look has been taken, and adjustments have been made.

“What Mr. Garzi wants to be sure of is that his values are as close as they can be, resulting in a minimum number of appeals.”

If complaints lead to recalculations and show that a neighborhood has been mis-valued, Mr. Garzi said, state law requires the town to correct the numbers for everyone in the area.

“When we make a change, we make a global change on the street. If something is too high or two low, we don’t want anybody to live with a number that’s not accurate for five years.”

State law requires the town’s values to be within 10% on either side of actual sale prices that come in, Mr. Garzi said.

“We have to give our results to the state and they look at all the sales. We have to give them all the sales that have occurred. If we fall outside of a range, then that’s not acceptable.

“We have to meet state standards. If something is too low or too high, we have to make the changes,” Mr. Garzi said.

Starting after the first notices in December, employees of eQuality Valuation Services, the firm consulting on the revaluation effort, conducted informal hearings, overseen by Mr. Garzi and staff.

Recalculations were also triggered by less formal discussions — visits to the office, phone calls.

“I might have gotten 300 calls myself,” Mr. Garzi said.

“While the notices were out, and the hearings were going on, we were listening, and making changes,” he said. “I heard from a lot of people: ‘Could you take a second look? We knew it was going to go down, but we didn’t think it was going to go down this much!’ ”

As the Jan. 31 deadline approached, many of the last notices of changes to go our were the result of the informal hearings that some property owners requested.

“Those might be another 250-300 notices, but those are hearing notices,” Mr. Garzi said.

“A lot of the changes were small changes, not big, “ he said.

“It’s an unusual time, too. When there’s not a lot of sales, you’ve got to tweak it.”

People who are unhappy with their assessment still have a venue for making the case that the assessor’s number is wrong.

The Board of Assessment Appeals meets in March. People have nearly three weeks to file for an appeal, but there are requirements.

“They basically need to come to the office by the 20th of February and we’ll help them fill out the forms,” Mr. Garzi said.

“Statutorily, they have to give an estimated  value. It’s not like they come in and say ‘It’s too high!’ They have to come in with a number and something to support the number, other than refinance appraisals.”

When the initial notices went out in December, Mr. Garzi said that the townwide average decrease in value was about 18%.

People whose valuations went down significantly more than 18% would be paying a little less in taxes; people whose valuations decreased less than 18% could expect to be paying a little more in taxes.

Mr. Garzi said this week that he didn’t know yet whether the changes made since December would move the 18% line much.

“The numbers weren’t big changes,” he said.

Two things could affect it more, the assessments on personal property and the motor vehicles. Those are separate categories of taxable property — business equipment, and people’s cars and trucks — where the state law mandates for 10% depreciation a year.

“Those are a pretty big part of the Grand List,” Mr. Garzi said.

Ridgefield is not alone in having a revaluation that requires a lot of reworking,  due to an initial shortage of sales numbers, and to property owners thrown by seeing their values decline.

“This is happening across the board in Connecticut, where everyone’s looking at the sales in October, November, December and January to see how close to that number they are, to see what needs to be adjusted and tweaked, so it’s as close as it needs to be.”

Even with the adjustments, the values are still down from the previous assessments, which were down in 2007, before the market fell off.

“Most assessments are still less than what they were,” Mr. Garzi said.

“Unfortunately, the complexity of the market put us in a position where we had to check everything until the last minute,” Mr. Garzi said.

“It’s a very difficult time to figure out what anything’s worth, whether you’re an assessor, an appraiser or a Realtor. You need to use everything that you know and have learned, to see whether this meets the litmus test — look at it 12 different ways from Sunday, to see if its right.”

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