Tax Case Talks Come to End
Selectman and Board Chairman Sides with the Town Assessors; William W. Graham's Appeal Will Be Decided in Court
By IAN FEIN
The chairman of the West Tisbury board of selectmen reversed position last week and called off settlement talks with town resident William W. Graham about his costly property tax case with assessors.
At the outset of a special public meeting on Saturday, selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter defended town assessors, praised their dedication and expertise and said he will not discuss details of the pending case until he receives a final decision from the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.
"To say the town's assessing department is under the microscope right now would be an understatement. They are being watched by towns and cities across the state, and at the appellate tax board. And I think that is where those issues should remain until they are decided," Mr. Manter said. "I would also ask that our good townspeople stop passing judgment on this case. I think it's out of line for people to be asking the assessors or the principal assessor to resign. Whatever happened to that good old statement: Innocent until proven guilty?"
Mr. Manter appeared to direct his comments to the public at large, and not to Mr. Graham, who sat across from him. He did not explain why his position had changed from three days before, when he voted along with the other selectmen to arrange the special meeting and begin negotiations with Mr. Graham.
More than 20 residents, including a number of town employees and board members, attended the rare weekend meeting. Selectmen on Tuesday this week held another well-attended public meeting with assessors' attorney Ellen Hutchinson, in preparation for a Jan. 17 special town meeting where voters will again be asked to pay roughly $250,000 in legal bills from the case. Voters rejected a similar request at a special town meeting last month.
Mr. Graham responded to the selectmen on Saturday. He expressed confidence in his case, and told them that as town leaders they should be gravely concerned about its outcome as well as the continuing work of the board of assessors.
"First of all, I'm not here because I'm worried about losing," said Mr. Graham, who noted that he worked as a trial attorney and also taught at a law school. "Before I appealed the assessors' decision I thought long and hard about what I was doing. And I think now what I thought then: If I could get all of the facts in the court record, whether or not the appellate tax board ruled in my favor, the [Massachusetts Court of Appeals] will not uphold a system of assessment that is arbitrary and unfair. There is no question in my mind that the record has all the facts I need."
Mr. Graham told selectmen he did not approach them in October because he sought tax relief. He said he asked them to intervene in his case because, unless they fix the assessment system that he believes is broken, the town will continue to face attorney's fees and legal challenges from other property owners who may have been reluctant to appeal their assessments in the past.
"It's never going to stop," Mr. Graham warned.
"If all I wanted to do was lower my taxes and lower my assessment, you know and I know that there are plenty of ways I could have done it that would have been far less expensive for me than this case," he said. "What I've asked for is to be treated fairly, and for my neighbors to be treated fairly. I never wanted to hurt the town, and tried everything I could - everything I could think of - to avoid going to court."
Mr. Graham said that even though the selectmen chose not to settle the case, he will not withdraw his offer to forgive the back taxes he believes he is owed. Mr. Graham said he will not collect on any court decision in his favor, which - if he were to win - could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. "I've been reluctant to say that for several reasons, but I've always known I would not enforce a judgment against the town," he said.
Mr. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is challenging his assessments from fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than a half million dollars in property taxes. He has argued the system town assessors use to determine land values and property taxes is fundamentally flawed.
Town assessors valued his property at more than $50 million in 2003 and 2004. Mr. Graham testified during prolonged hearings before the state appellate tax board hearing that he believes errors in methods used by town assessors resulted in excessive valuations of roughly $30 million.
Mr. Graham responded to statements by all three selectmen that they felt uncomfortable negotiating a value for his property.
"I'm not asking you to come up with an assessment for my property, and I never have," he told the selectmen. "I'm not asking you to be assessors, or to override the assessors. I am asking you to be leaders - and to tell the voters what you think. Mr. Chairman, you've done that. And I respect that," he said to Mr. Manter.
"But I think you owe it to the town to take your own independent look," Mr. Graham added. "If you find the system is seriously broken - as I think it is - then do what you should and tell the taxpayers not to pay any more money to help the people who broke the system cover it up."
Selectman Glenn Hearn, who in recent weeks has become more vocal about his concerns regarding the case, told fellow board members they should be discussing the perceived assessment problems with Mr. Graham. "I want to make sure - and I think we all should - that West Tisbury has a fair and equitable valuation system," Mr. Hearn said. "The more that discussion is held in public, the more everybody will understand it."
After selectman John Early reiterated his previous position that the board of selectmen lacks the authority to negotiate anything binding in this case, the board voted 2-1, with Mr. Hearn dissenting, against further negotiations with Mr. Graham.
Contrary to his own wishes, Mr. Manter then opened the meeting to public comment. Almost all of the residents who spoke expressed unhappiness with the selectmen's decision and concerns about the legal bills from what is now the longest and most expensive personal property tax case in state history.
Island landscaper Brian Abbott, whose testimony during the appellate tax board hearing undermined parts of the assessors' defense, said he believes voters are upset with the way the whole issue has been handled by the town. He told the selectmen that they should take some time and educate themselves about the case before they ask voters to pay the bills.
"I'm most curious why you wouldn't be interested in reading transcripts [from the tax hearing] to help give voters - like me - an idea why they should pay those bills," Mr. Abbott said. "Because since the last town meeting, I've heard a lot more that makes me not want to pay them."
Middle Point Road resident Martha Moore told the selectmen about her disconcerting experiences with town assessors. She said it took the assessors three years to acknowledge that she had no electricity in her home, and that her property record included a photograph of a children's dollhouse that had been enlarged to look like a shed, for which she was being taxed. "The arbitrariness of assessing seems a little disturbing," Ms. Moore said.
Town resident Marshall Segall criticized Mr. Manter for the way he began the meeting.
"I came here, I think like everyone else, expecting a discussion of the substance of the case. And what we heard from the chairman was that he refused to allow that to happen," Mr. Segall said. "It seems to me you have finessed any substantive discussion and left us all open to ongoing circumstance. Talk about win-win; it's lose-lose. Everybody's going to lose."
A second session before the West Tisbury selectmen also underscored growing public concern about the direction of this controversial property tax appeal case.
While selectmen called the Tuesday meeting with assessors' attorney Ms. Hutchinson ostensibly to discuss her mounting legal bills, Mr. Hearn and other town residents asked her pointed questions about the way she handled the case.
Mr. Hearn asked Ms. Hutchinson why, during the hearing, she challenged a letter from Mr. Early that he had signed under oath. Ms. Hutchinson said the letter was hearsay, and that she challenged it to protect her client.
The letter raised questions of possible perjury by principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes, who testified that she was certain she saw a specific house at a given time, even though Mr. Early presented evidence that indicated it had been demolished more than six months before. "That house was torn down; there is no question about it," Mr. Hearn said.
Mr. Hearn also asked Ms. Hutchinson why mediation attempts between the assessors and Mr. Graham were terminated last April, before the hearing began. Ms. Hutchinson refused to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement that she said she believes some people have violated.
Regarding payment, Ms. Hutchinson defended her work but said she will consider a further reduction, even though her $84,000 in unpaid bills already include a 25 to 30 per cent discount. "I'm not trying to be a martyr here," she said. "But I know you can't bill for every hour and every minute you work, because it would break the town."
Ms. Hutchinson said she also took steps to limit costs in the case. "I was acutely aware of the costs, and the assessors were acutely aware," Ms. Hutchinson said. "And we did make a deliberative effort to keep the costs down where we could."
When discussing the bills, Ms. Hutchinson suggested she might not write the final briefs for the case if town voters decide not to pay her. But when pressed about her ethical or legal obligations to see the case through to the end, Ms. Hutchinson said she did not know whether she would actually be allowed to withdraw.
Mr. Hearn suggested that he did. "I have made a few calls to Boston, and I was told you would be in big problems if you decided not to write that brief," he said.
Town resident Robert (J.C.) Murphy agreed, and told Ms. Hutchinson that he believes she would be required to write the brief by the Board of Bar Overseers, an administrative agency that investigates ethical complaints against attorneys in Massachusetts. "I'm saying it's legal 101," Mr. Murphy said. "We do not have to pay this woman."
Mr. Murphy also warned selectmen that they should investigate potential fraud and misconduct in the assessors' office regarding this case, as well as other continuing practices.
"This is just the beginning, and you might have malice in some cases," Mr. Murphy said. "This is going to explode if you don't nip it in the bud and show some leadership. We're going to have some real problems."