Belfast gets blowback for revaluations

City Hall phones light up as tax bills arrive
By Ethan Andrews | Oct 12, 2017

Belfast — Belfast's tax rate went down this year, but a wave of revaluations apparently took property owners by surprise. City Manager Joe Slocum said the city received more than 100 calls after tax bills went out earlier this month from residents complaining that their assessments had spiked.

Belfast hasn't done a citywide revaluation since 2004, so many of the increases may have been overdue. But for some, that was small consolation.

Slocum said one property owner called to complain that her assessment had doubled. When he looked up the property, he found that the assessment previously hadn't changed in 14 years. The new value might have been fair, he said, but he wished it could have happened gradually.

"That's a huge increase for one year," he said, adding that he would have preferred to raise the value in smaller amounts two or three times over the same time period.

But that wasn't an option. City officials determined that phasing in the increase after the correct value had been established would be unfair to property owners who already were assessed closer to market value.

On Oct. 10, Slocum said several factors conspired to delay the review of property assessments. Officials considered a revaluation after the housing market crashed in 2008-09 but decided property values were too shaky to set new assessments accurately. When former assessor Bob Whitely fell ill in 2011, any attempt at a systematic revaluation was put on hold for several years.

Assessor Brent Martin, who was hired in 2015, started a larger "equalization" effort last year in an attempt to bring the city's overall valuation closer to the state's valuation of Belfast. This percentage affects school funding and reimbursement for the homestead exemption.

This year, revaluations added roughly $40 million to the city's tax base. That figure includes $60 million in increases offset by $20 million in reductions.

The assessor's office was not immediately able to provide maps of areas that were reviewed or a list of properties that were revalued.

Slocum said he was surprised by the blowback because he thought the city's plans to tackle outdated assessments had been well publicized through discussions at city meetings and newspaper articles.

"We really thought we talked about this so much that people knew it was coming," he said. "In hindsight, I would have written every taxpayer a letter."

 

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