WVN #273: Study confirms assessments flawed
- Dear Wayland Voter,
A consultant has confirmed what many taxpayers have suspected for some time: Wayland's assessment system is flawed.
Also in this newsletter:
-- School officials are optimistic about updated technology at the high school and new or renovated buildings.
-- You can now see the results of a town effort to create affordable housing.
CONSULTANT: ASSESSMENTS NEED FIXING
After years of complaints and a high level of abatements, the town allocated $40,000 at Town Meeting last spring for a consultant to look into the situation.
Harald Scheid of Regional Resource Group reported his findings at a packed selectmen's meeting on Dec. 8. He declared the problem significant and made several recommendations.
One measure of an assessment operation is the number of successful appeals, he said. On that score, Wayland is in a class by itself when measured against seven comparable towns: Lincoln, Weston, Sudbury, Concord, Westwood, Bedford and
Hopkinton. Over three years those towns returned an average of $20,000-30,000 each per year to property taxpayers by abatement. The Wayland average is $226,000.
What causes this level of appeals? According to Scheid, the biggest factor is "value volatility," which he illustrated with a graph showing individual assessments rising and falling over recent years without pattern or normal distribution. Some values went
up by 30 percent while others dropped by a similar amount.
The statistical expectation is a consistent movement. The less volatility, the better model to guide assessments, he said.
Scheid sent letters to a random sample of 500 households and received permission from 60 to compare reality with property records and assessed value over fiscal years 2008 and 2009. Of the 60, a few values dropped in both years, a few rose in both
years. The rest rose, then fell, or fell and then rose.
Scheid offered several recommendations:
-- In Fiscal 2010 a "complete drive-by," a relatively inexpensive way to look at every property and identify errors in property records.
-- From 2011 to 2013 a "full list and measure," close examination of as many properties as possible to disclose further errors.
(An April Town Meeting petitioners' article to accomplish this was opposed by the assessors, Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen, who favored a consultant study first.)
-- Routinely inspect each property every six years. Wayland assessors say the current schedule is once every 10 years, the maximum permitted, which Scheid says is roughly the same as in many Massachusetts municipalities.
Board of Assessors Chairman Bruce Cummings said, "We have a reasonable product; we want to make it better." His board would welcome the six-year schedule, he said, and will ask the town for more money to improve accuracy.
When asked by Finance Committee Member John Bladon whether the current Assessors' office is adequate to carry out the recommendations, Scheid replied, "No."
Scheid made it clear that collecting accurate data is expensive. It is difficult to get permission to inspect more than 30 to 40 percent of dwellings, and inspectors must be well trained. Increased accuracy means increased cost.
At best, Scheid said, values are only an indicator of market value. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue keeps records on the relation between valuation and selling price. Dispersion of 6 percent between selling price and assessed value is
considered average. The dispersion in Wayland in 2005 was listed as 10.3 percent, but Scheid said the real figure was probably 15 to 20 percent because extreme examples were excluded.
In addition to this natural market variation from assessment of 4 to 6 percent, Scheid said, there are other sources of discrepancy besides data errors: "Curb appeal," for example, and sellers willing to accept a lower price.
A very large coefficient would explain some of Wayland taxpayers' complaints in recent years. One taxpayer given the chance to comment before Monday's presentation recommended spending more on obtaining better data in order to spend less on
Another taxpayer called attention to the land assessment on a 25-acre property dropping from $4.6 million to $1 million, and houses assessed at up to $500,000 less than the sales price in 2007, the year on which Fiscal 2009 assessments are based.
Another example: a million-dollar property mistakenly assessed only on the basis of its basement for a large portion of the dwelling. (Abatements may solve problems of overassessed property but don't address problems of underassessment.)
Scheid said he wasn't given the task of studying the recent revaluation done by Vision Appraisal, which apparently shifts much value from large lots to those of less than one acre. (See the section below.) The Board of Selectmen wouldn't allow public
comment after his presentation, but promised three public meetings in the next three months.
A complete report based on Scheid's study is expected in a few months.
-- Michael Short
BURDEN SHIFTING TO SMALLER PARCELS?
Many changes will occur if the Board of Assessors lets stand the proposed assessments derived from this year's drive-by assessment revaluation performed by Vision Appraisal Technology.
Using the new standard metric for land valuation of 60,000 square feet, and $25,000 per acre for excess land, the preliminary assessments posted on the assessors' website reveal the combined assessed value of all single family land. Townwide
the total land value for single family homes drops 1.8 percent.
However, the total value of parcels of less than 60,000 square feet rises 0.4 percent while the total value of parcels 60,000 square feet and over drops 6.2 percent.
This pattern can be seen by looking at randomly selected parcels above and below two acres.
The proposed 2009 land value total of 22 single family homes with more than 2 acres shows a drop of $5.1 million in combined value or 33 percent from that of fiscal year 2008. All selected parcels had double digit declines in value.
The pattern was mixed for the proposed 2009 land value total of 22 single family homes with less than 2 acres. The group's combined value rose by nearly $529,900 or 9 percent . Eight showed declines, and the rest showed increases ranging from 2.5
percent to 55 percent.
Taking a longer look, from 2007 to the proposed 2009, the land value of the 22 large lots declined 31 percent while the small lots declined 5 percent. This small sample excludes new growth.
Parcels under two acres will represent 67 percent of the total value of single family land, according to the proposed 2009 assessments, up from 65 percent in 2008.
A glance at the color-coded site index map shows odd pairings of streets with the same supposed land values: Rolling Lane and Aqueduct Road are given the same "multiplier factor" as Glezen Lane and most of Moore Road. Woodridge Road and the
upper part of Plain Road are assigned the same multiplier as Lincoln Road and lower Moore.
With the expected drop in values from residential, commercial, and vacant land, it appears the tax burden will fall more heavily on the smaller lot. This may be a phenomenon that needs scrutiny by the Board of Assessors before submitting the town's
values to the state for final certification.
-- Molly Upton
HIGH SCHOOL PROGRESS
A happy Lea Anderson, chair of the High School Building Committee (HSBC), gave the School Committee a progress report at its meeting of Dec. 1. She believes significant headway is finally being made with the Massachusetts School Building Authority
(MSBA). The HSBC's goal is voter approval of an MSBA-approved reconstruction or renovation plan offering about 40 percent state reimbursement.
The original choice for Owner's Project Manager, Turner Associates, could not agree on contract terms with the MSBA. But Anderson and others had just met with the second choice, KVAssociates (www.kvaboston.com) , and she planned to recommend
that the HSBC approve it instead; she anticipates no problem with the much smaller and more flexible firm reaching a contract agreement with MSBA.
A major new effort is now planned using an outside consultant to define a new Educational Specification, which is required as part of the Feasibility Study, and a new enrollment projection will be finalized soon.
These are all steps required to address the question of renovation vs new construction, which has to be answered before a schematic plan and cost estimate can be completed, which would lead to a town wide vote.
The outside consultant is described as a a renowned educational expert who can propose different models and possibilities for educational programs. The Ed Spec involves defining priorities, e.g., do we want larger than typical music rooms, or science
labs, or whatever, given that the total square footage is defined by the enrollment projection and an MSBA formula for square footage per student.
The Ed Spec for the previous $57 million proposal voted down by the town in 2005 was largely set by simply asking school personnel what they wanted.
The current projection for completing the Ed Spec is February.
A $900,000 placeholder warrant article was unanimously approved for submittal for the April 2009 Annual Town Meeting to provide worst-case funds for a feasibility study if required. The HSBC hopes very little of it will actually be needed. Some,
currently unknown portion of the previous feasibility study will be reusable. The $300,000 approved at a previous Town Meeting, none of which has been spent, will be applied. And MSBA has indicated it will pay for 40 percent of the study, but it is
unknown whether this will be paid as the work is done or will be an after-the-fact reimbursement.
A placeholder article means it is highly likely to be reduced before it is presented to Town Meeting, as the unknowns become more defined.
The new school technology director, Leisha Simon, presented her new far-reaching Technology Plan to the committee, her first and the first since last year's scathing Technology Audit financed by the Wayland Public Schools Foundation. She is proposing
to invest $750,000 per year on technology, which is still less than the approximately $1 million per year that state guidelines recommend for maximum technology development but far higher than the roughly $200,000 annual yearly average spent by
the district for the last ten years. Her vision for the development of "21st Century Classrooms," where technology would become as central to learning as it now is to the operations of most corporations, clearly impressed the School Committee.
Unfortunately, the first few years of this plan will have to be devoted to catch-up, as technology was underfunded for ten years under Superintendent Gary Burton, who freely admits to ignorance of technology and has said that he doesn't even own a
cell phone. The former technology director, Jean Tower, acknowledged to WVN that she left at least partly because of lack of support. As a result, most of the existing equipment in the schools is obsolete.
A member of the advisory Technology Task Force noted, for example, that his cell phone had more memory than the storage capacity of one of the servers still in use in the schools.
The first priority will be rebuilding infrastructure, such as networking and servers. Until now, the entire high school had only the Internet capacity of a single residential Comcast line. Current obsolete computers need to be replaced over the next several
years, and only after that can the scope of the system be expanded.
The benefits of the investment in enhancing educational quality and productivity can be phased in as well, however. For example, there is talk of introducing Chinese in the schools. This could be done with online courses rather than by hiring a new
teacher. The frequent calls for more differentiated teaching could similarly be met with online resources, both for more advanced learners and for those needing more drills in basics.
And students sitting in the library or courtyard (or at home!) engaged in online learning would free classroom space for more traditional classes.
The School Committee unanimously approved the submission of the $750,000 request to the Finance Committee. If approved, the request will go to Town Meeting.
FISCAL 2010 SCHOOL BUDGET
School Committee working sessions will be held on Jan. 5, 8, 12 and 15 to prepare for a budget submission on Jan. 16. Later sessions may be cancelled if not needed. It is assumed there will be no override.
Three high school seniors have joined the school population in the last month, along with five in other grades. Four elementary classes are now over guideline by one child.
-- Tom Sciacca
(Editor's note: Tom Sciacca is a member of the Technology Task Force.)
OXBOW AFFORDABLE PROJECT
Affordable housing is often built by aggressive developers who welcome the chance to evade some local restrictions in return for selling some units at below market prices. Two recent Wayland controversies are cases in point.
But the all-affordable 16-condo development nearing completion at 89 Oxbow Road is the product of initiative and effort by Wayland residents, boards and committees. On Sunday Dec. 14 there will be an open house from 1-4 p.m.
You can see for yourself what civic spirit has created. The condos have solar panels and other examples of intelligent design and "green innovation," according to marketing literature.
The two- and three-bedroom units built on a former Nike missile site will sell for an average of $186,000.
The condos will be sold by lottery, with 11 earmarked for Wayland-connected families, such as Wayland town employees and children of Wayland residents. The application deadline is Dec. 31.
For income restrictions and other information you can find a link at www.wayland.ma.us, email oxbow@... or call 978-258-3492.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor