Tax assessments are coming soon

Lurking gray and unwelcome amid the smiling Santas and glitzie gifta-ma-hooties of next week’s holiday mail should be an unobtrusive but potentially significant — possibly unpleasant — envelope.

The town of Ridgefield will be sending out property revaluation notices — new tax assessments.

The news is not expected to be good.

“There’s no doubt the value of homes has come down,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said last week. “This is the first time in at least 30 years we’ve seen a decrease in value in the grand list, so it is somewhat uncharted waters.”

Yes, the notices are expected to inform each of the town’s 9,000-odd property owners how much the assessed value of their real estate has fallen.

Due to a statutory deadline, the notices should be just in time for Christmas.

“I’m hoping that they’ll be mailed out the middle to the end of next week,” said Assessor Al Garzi, who this week was still scrambling to get all the loose ends tied up.

“There are so many dynamics to deal with in the real estate market and the appraisal process, at this point I don’t have final numbers,” Mr. Garzi said Wednesday morning. “We’re not sure how it’s going to shake out. There’s still a lot to review.”

But it’s a safe bet values will be falling. The last revaluation was in 2007 — before the world economic crisis. So just about everything on the town’s grand list of taxable properties is expected to take a tumble.

What will matter is, How much?

Property revaluation is required by the state every five years to keep each property owner’s share of the town tax burden in proportion to the relative value of the owner’s real estate.

Although the new assessments will likely mean a change in how much individual property owners pay, the town’s overall revaluation isn’t a tax increase — it’s a rebalancing.

“We know due to the decrease in the grand list values that the mill rate will automatically have to be adjusted upwards, so that we collect the same amount of money after that we did before,” Mr. Marconi said. “That’s the only reason for a mill rate increase — it is not a tax increase.”

How individual property owners’ taxes are affected by the revaluation will depend on how the change in their assessment from 2007 to today compares to the average change in assessment.

“If the average decrease is 20% and my house decreased only 15%, then I would incur approximately a 5% increase in my tax bill,” Mr. Marconi said. “And the reverse is true. If the average decrease in value is 20%, and my house went down 25%, I would have a decrease of approximately 5% in my tax bill.

“So what people will need to know to figure out what their bill will do, is they need to know what the average decrease is, and then compare,” he said.

The 20% average Mr. Marconi used in his example isn’t what the town’s average is. It’s a made-up number. But it isn’t one he blindly pulled out of a hat.

“It’s a ballpark. If you look at most communities in Fairfield County that have already gone through their revaluation, that’s approximately what has been seen. But it’s not a definite for Ridgefield.”

Everything that affects changes in market value — the house itself, the neighborhood, the price range it’s in —  could affect the new assessed values.

One trend people have been talking about is that larger homes — especially ones that aren’t in the center of town — seemed hurt more by the down real estate market.

But it’s not that simple, according to the assessor.

“Size of a home is starting to look like it’s less of a factor than was first thought,” Mr. Garzi said Wednesday. “More important is the condition of the house, as the real estate agents will tell you, and the location.”

Softening the blow on homeowners whose house values have gone down less than the average will be the fact that with the rising mill rate that accompanies a plunge in values, other stuff — cars and business equipment taxed as “personal property” — will likely carry more of the load. The tax rate will go up on them.

“Because there’s a general decrease in the overall grand list, which is the total value of all real estate and personal property in town, the mill rate we know will be going up. That increase in the mill rate alone will generate additional revenues from personal property and automobiles,” Mr. Marconi said.

“That additional money will help mitigate any increase that someone may incur as a result of their house not going down as much as the average.”

The changes in relative assessed value, along with how much the 2013-14 budget spends, will affect homeowners’ taxes starting in July 2013.

Homeowners opening their envelopes should also remember that the assessed value is calculated to represent 70% of the property’s actual market value.

Next week’s assessment notices will be the culmination of a process Assessor Al Garzi, his staff, and a Waterbury-based consulting firm, eQuality Valuation Services LLC, have been working on for two years.

“In mid-December, all the taxpayers will receive an informal hearing notice indicating the 2007 assessment and the 2012 assessment. At that time they will have a chance to discuss their new assessment with either me or eQuality officials,” Mr. Garzi said in a memorandum to Mr. Marconi earlier in the year.

So taxpayers will be able to disagree and try to get their assessments changed.

People will need to call the assessor’s office to set up an appointment with Mr. Garzi or the Board of Assessment Appeals.

The revaluation will cost the town about $200,000, spread over two years.

The firm helping with the revaluation, eQuality Valuation Services, is part of the company that manages the administrative computer software for Ridgefield and about 125 other Connecticut towns.

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