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LETTER: Herrick seeks answers to property tax increases

To the Editor:

After hearing from many constituents about their dilemma in understanding recent property tax hikes, I contacted Auburn Hall, hoping for a clear explanation for these increases. I was told simply that corner lots have higher values than lots that are not on corners.

I had a difficult time squaring this with what we had been told repeatedly during the budget process: the city’s property valuation had remained the same as previous years. Then why this increase?

I contacted Mike Rogers from the State Revenue Services to ask him about corner lots. We had what I thought was an informed and friendly conversation, agreeing with some points while disagreeing on others. That night at the Auburn City Council meeting, I spoke of my conversation with Rogers, since I thought that the information I had gotten was important.

I then decided to call Mr. Rogers, as he had urged me to do if I needed help, to ask if he would come speak to the city council. When he finally returned my call, he appeared to be a completely new individual with a totally different attitude.

He informed me that from now on, all our communications would be through e-mail. He said that he would come to the city council only if he had written permission from all the councilors and the city manager. He said he would refuse to discuss any single property and that he would talk to his supervisor and get back to me, which he never did.

It was clear that someone had gotten to him—we later discovered it was our city manager. When Mr. Rogers agreed to come to the council, it occurred to me that no one knew what these two had discussed. Obviously, whatever it was had changed Mr. Rogers’s demeanor. Was he briefed on what to say or what questions he would be asked? He had now taken on a party line, one that he did not previously have. Why? We don’t know.

But one thing is for sure: our assessing does not seem to be fair, accurate and equitable. Do you remember all the mistakes made some years ago when the city went to 100-percent valuation? Do you remember the confusion about detached and attached garages, only to be followed the next year with the mistakes in homestead and exemptions, the next year with bills on water and baseboard heating?

Well, this year’s mistake is on corner lots. Where will it end? Will next year be dead-end streets?

Assessed value this year alone was mishandled on at least four lots. One property owner had a commercial appraisal done six months before he got the city assessment for taxes. The appraisal cost the property owner $2,500. The city’s assessment, however, amounted to $65,000 more than the professional appraisal.

When the property owner brought this discrepancy to the city’s attention, the city simply choose to accept its own valuation rather than the one produced by a professional assessor.

Another property owner was assessed more value for a corner lot, which turned to not even to qualify as a corner lot. This property owner did finally get a value reduction, but much less than expected.

One lot, which actually had a building on it, has never been assessed, while the business taxes on another went up $600, and it wasn’t even a corner lot. Why so many mistakes and contradictions?

In light of what’s been happening, I firmly believe that all citizens should carefully review their city tax assessments. Who knows how many more errors are out there, waiting to be discovered? I’ve asked for a list of properties that have been assessed higher because they sit on a corner lot, but have yet to receive anything. If as a councilor I cannot get the list, how will a constituent fare?

We have, at best, a flawed system. I’m told that we don’t even use our Patriot System to its full capacity. This software program was bought to solve our problems. More and more, I tend to see why citizens believe that our assessors are given a budget figure to meet and then are expected to find ways to make that budget magically work at all costs.

It’s equivalent to saying, “Let’s make it happen, and we’ll deal with the problems later.” That’s not the way to run a city. We deserve better.

Dan Herrick
Auburn City Councilor
Ward 3
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