What Happens When a Selectwoman Challenges the Town of Piermont? – Part 5
Piermont Taxes, Assessments and Avitar
Introduction from Part 1:
If you still don’t understand that your own NH town is a good place to start draining the swamp, please read on…
Piermont is a small town in Grafton County, New Hampshire. When we say small, we mean it — the population of Piermont was a mere 790 at the 2010 census.
When Teran “Terri” Mertz, wife of George Mertz, Commander, USN (Ret) was elected to a seat on the 3-person Selectboard in 2016 for a three-year term, she never expected that her attempts to insure the town simply follow rules and procedures would lead to harassment, threats of arrest, and even an attempt to ban her from entering the town offices.
Even though attempts began almost immediately after she was elected to coerce Selectwoman Mertz into going along with conducting certain Town business in backroom deals or without public discussions, that did not dissuade her from wanting to address in public meetings the many serious issues facing the town.
Those issues weren’t just her own that she’d assembled from attending many Board meetings before she was elected; a good number came from those citizens who either contacted her or visited her at her home to discuss matters of concern to them. Those were among the many people who elected her.
One of those issues was the fairness of property valuations, the performance of the current tax assessment contractor, Avitar, and the role of the Selectboard in that process.
On March 30, 2016, only two weeks after she was elected, she was already hard at work on this issue and, after doing some research, asked that an agenda item be added for the next Board meeting on April 4th to discuss the property assessment contract that was expiring at the end of the year, stating:
“We should be looking at other options for assessors especially considering the [number of] abatement requests we are receiving.”
The dissatisfaction with Avitar in Piermont, which resulted in so many abatement requests, is the same as it is in many other towns serviced by the property assessment giant in New Hampshire.
First, there is the “View Tax”, or more correctly, the “view factor”, which, despite self-serving articles to the contrary that depict it as a useful tool for fairness in property assessment, it is seen in Piermont, as in other areas, for what it is – a duplicitous means for town and city governments to put an extra tax on desirable property to make up for the lack of a personal income tax in the state. The view tax is added on to assessments even though the fair market values of those properties already reflect their relatively higher value over less desirable properties in a community.
In effect, it is essentially double taxation. But, of course, Concord and local governments adamantly don’t see it that way; to them it’s welcomed extra revenue that they could not acquire by more legitimate means.
This “view tax” argument has raged for years in New Hampshire and, interestingly enough, only a few years ago in Orford, Piermont’s immediate neighbor to the south. At that time, the property assessing contractor for Orford was Avitar, but the town went with a different contractor soon afterwards.
There is no lack of excuses and rationalizations as to why a “view factor” is needed, but in sifting through them, the bottom line is clear; it really is a tool, but not one to promote fair taxation.
Instead, it is designed, as was brought out in the Orford discussion, to tax people out of properties that have been in their families for generations so that they can then be sold for a huge profit to out-of-stater’s and flatlanders who want to escape north from the less desirable living conditions of big cities and urban areas, and then to make more money for the town’s by taxing those properties with ever increasing “view factor” valuations.
It’s as simple as that.
Even if we were to assume for a minute that a “view factor” is legitimate, which it most certainly is not, the big problem with Avitar in particular is that its assignment of this extra valuation on a property appears to be completely subjective and totally dependent upon the whims of the assessor.
Or maybe the Selectmen reviewing the valuations?
In Piermont, many owners have asked to see the algorithm Avitar uses to assess their properties with respect to their “view tax”; to date not one bit of information as to how they assign such valuations has been made public, which implies it is as totally subjective as it appears to be.
Or maybe it is dictated?
But who, besides a Selectboard in closed door and backroom discussions, or an opportunistic Board member, has the power to do so?
That has led to a lawsuit in Piermont by a landowner who, while admitting there is a spectacular view from his property, questions why a neighbor, with almost as good a view, but who is a longtime resident, is assessed a disproportionately lower “view tax” than he, an admitted newcomer. His suit was not about the neighbor though as the Piermont rumor mill would have it; it was about fairness.
It is not a unique story in Piermont.
As most would probably guess by now, there is a Piermont Town official who also has a wonderful view from his property, almost all the way to Russia, yet enjoys a relatively miniscule view factor assessment.
How can that be? Unless…
That alone would give most people some cause to think that in this tiny town the view tax/factor is being used as a weapon against those who are not “old timers” or make the mistake of questioning what’s been termed the “special interests” in town that benefit from the extra money brought in by taxing the newcomers.
As long as it’s not exposed by a prying Selectwoman, it would seem to be a good way to get extra money from those who are perceived to be able to afford it.
How else, when a many of the old timers don’t or can’t pay their taxes, to pay for a bloated school budget that rivals most private colleges in the country for per student cost?
Or a single-officer police department that feels the need, with the blessing of the two Selectmen, to purchase an expensive military-style weapon, special optics and ammunition to arm itself against an unknown threat identified only in nebulous terms?
It is interesting that those same Selectmen couldn’t seem to find the money to pay for an ambulance service for the “rich” folks, who are viewed as living in primarily the eastern area of town, even though it cost only about half of what arming the police department with it’s “necessary” new weapon did.
Apparently, there was no need to consider how many times a paramilitary weapon would be used in such a small town as opposed to providing a relatively inexpensive life-saving service for an area that has seen waiting times of 45 minutes or more before an ambulance can respond to an emergency call.
But it does not stop there with Avitar or the Piermont Selectboard.
There is also ample evidence to indicate that again those perceived as wealthy and newcomers to the town are being taxed on their buildings and land disproportionately to those who describe themselves as the “old timers” of Piermont.
We’ve been told those old timers who don’t seem to like those new to the town, are the same ones who want a friendlier Piermont, like in the Good Old Days.
From the way tax assessments are levied, it would seem that what they really want is a return to the days when the Selectboard could set the tax valuations however they wanted based on personal likes, dislikes and a perception of who could afford to pay higher taxes, while town tax money could be used for whatever the old timers wanted without question, not the least of which was a swollen school budget that benefitted certain families in town.
To show this, we’ve been able to obtain the recent increases in property valuations of those perceived in Piermont to be able to afford such increases, those who live around Lake Armington in the eastern part of the town, the area that didn’t deserve ambulance service like the western portion of the town. A spread sheet depicting those increases is attached at the end of this article.
What this spreadsheet reveals is that the “rich” have been targeted, particularly so in the last half of 2016, for property valuation increases from 3%, the usual threshold for identifying extraordinary increases, to well over 200% of their former value.
It goes without saying that there are very few corresponding increases in the property valuations of those perceived to be old timers, certainly in those numbers of properties, which can be verified by looking at the valuations for all other property owners in Piermont.
While it may not trouble the old timers since there are quite a few who either don’t pay their taxes or are severely delinquent, it should bother those who do as this increase in property valuations for those viewed as well-off comes at a time when the Town is facing huge legal expenses for all of the lawsuits brought against the Town and the Selectboard for alleged violations of the State’s Right-to-Know laws and property valuation abuses.
Back in Part 1, we made mention of an article that described the cost to towns of defending public officials who are accused of being in violation of the State’s Right to Know laws, and it is appropriate to repeat it here:
“Public officials, use taxpayer money to hire lawyers to fight on their behalf against the citizen’s right to know. They spread their financial risk across all the unwitting taxpayers within the community.”
In Piermont, “unwitting taxpayers” apparently means “only the rich”, and that’s just fine with the old timers who love to spend tax money, as long as it’s not theirs.
Then there is Avitar’s alleged tendency to over-estimate dimensions on rooms or outdoor features, although this also appears to apply only for the “rich”, which of course goes to increase the valuations of those properties.
Inconsistencies and discrepancies like these and others have led communities neighboring Piermont and in other parts of the State to drop Avitar as their property assessor and seek other contractors who are felt or have been shown to provide fairer and more accurate assessments.
But in Piermont, despite the legitimate requests from residents to likewise seek other property assessor’s or who at least expressed severe dissatisfaction with Avitar, Selectmen Colin Stubbings and Randy Subjeck, over the objections of Selectwoman Mertz, appear to have gone out of their way to ensure Avitar retained the contract for valuing Piermont property, even to the point of apparently suppressing fair and open bidding for the Town’s property assessment contract.
Why would they do that?
The answer may lie with what happened after Selectwoman Mertz requested her agenda item about discussing the property assessment contract at the Board meeting on April 4, 2016.
Next: Part 6 – Piermont’s Not-So-Competitive Bidding Process