WOONSOCKET — After operating without a full-time tax assessor for more than a year until a few weeks ago, the city’s normal budgeting timeline appears likely to derail due to an ongoing revaluation process, complicated by a volatile real estate market.
Members of the City Council and Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt discussed the issue for nearly an hour Monday after the mayor made a formal request to delay her submission of a proposed fiscal year 2022 budget by up to 30 days. The council tabled the measure, looking for additional clarification on the mayor’s justification to further postpone the delivery of the budget, which is already later than what the City Charter requires.
Originally, the reason for the request given by the mayor was uncertainty over the use of American Rescue Plan funds, as she stated in a memo to the council last week. As the discussion got underway on Monday, however, she barely mentioned ARP – from which the city anticipates receiving some $36 million – instead focusing on the tax assessor’s newness on the job and her handling of a continuing revaluation of citywide real estate that is transitioning from one outside contractor to another.
Mary Chris Belair, a former tax assessor in several other communities, including North Smithfield, has been on the job for about six weeks. She takes over amid a data transfer from Northeast Revaluation Group of Warwick, which had the city’s revaluation contract for a relatively short period of time before the City Council switched back to Vision Appraisal Technologies – the company now overseeing the assignment of new values to more than 10,000 parcels of residential and commercial real estate in the city.
“She’s doing a good job,” Baldelli-Hunt said at one point. “But in fairness to the taxpayer, we want to make sure it’s not done in such a speedy fashion that there are errors. We try to avoid errors as much as we can.”
Errors also result in lawsuits: A recent report from the law department contains a substantial list of pending litigation involving challenged real estate assessments.
Council Vice President John Ward, a finance director in Lincoln, said he wouldn’t be surprised if more than 70 percent of Vision Appraisal’s work is already done, which ordinarily would make him lean against a delay in the budget. But there is another factor that he suggested might change his mind, and that’s the volatility of the real estate market.
With demand for houses far outstripping the available supply, a trend real estate experts say COVID-19 is partly responsible for as fewer houses were built during the pandemic and more people were shopping for cozy work-at-home spots, the ongoing installment of revaluation is likely to have some dramatic consequences on property values, Ward said. Ultimately, certain fundamentals of the budget, especially tax rates, could end up looking quite different than they do now.
“I don’t think it would serve us well to have that wait a full year, except for the fact that we’re going to have an extraordinary change in values because of market positions this year,” Ward said. “It’s going to have a negative impact on things...because what goes up must come down, and right now it’s gone up a lot, and when it goes down it’s going to trigger all kinds of ratio changes around the city and it’s going to make people very uncomfortable.”
The specter of disruption in the budget cycle led some members of the council to suggest delaying not the budget, but revaluation itself – a process that is not optional for cities and towns. Revaluation is required by the General Assembly on a regular basis with varying degrees of intensity. The city is presently in the most thorough phase required, at 10-year intervals, calling for home inspections by trained appraisers.
Councilman James Cournoyer said he’d be inclined to support a delay in the revaluation, but he made it plain he wants to hear from Belair before taking any action. If she confirms she’s having issues with revaluation, Cournoyer said “we should at least consider it,” though it would require a waiver from the General Assembly to put the brakes on revaluation.
“It is routinely done,” said City Solicitor John DeSimone, a former lawmaker.
Another member of the council who seems on board with delaying the submission of the budget is President Daniel Gendron, though he was surprised to hear of the reason from Baldelli-Hunt for the first time at Monday’s meeting. Previously, he was under the impression that uncertainty over ARP, as the mayor cited in the memo, is what prompted her to ask for more time to assemble the budget.
“Coming in here tonight, I was not at all supportive of delay,” he said. “The way it was explained to me, it was a delay because of the American Rescue Plan, which I don’t think should affect our normal annual budget.”
But he, too, wants more information from Belair.
“If she’s behind the eight-ball because of being here a shorter time than previous assessors, I can understand a little bit,” he said. “I would like to know a little more of what the real delay is and whether 30 days will accommodate...or not.”
Reached by phone after the meeting, Gendron said it’s still unclear when the council will get a budget from the administration, but Belair might be able to clear up some lingering questions about how revaluation is affecting the process at the next meeting on Monday. He said he’s not sure she will attend, but he said it would be prudent for the mayor to make her available at this point.
The City Charter directs the administrative branch to submit a budget no later than 50 days before the beginning of the new fiscal year, which starts on July 1. Normally the council gets it around May 10 and approves it around the third week of June.
Until a few weeks ago, the city was operating without a full-time tax assessor since the fall of 2019, when Elyse Pare resigned to take the same job in Providence. Pare continued to help out part-time for a while after her official resignation, and former Tax Assessor Arthur Bouchard, who is retired, has come in to take care of essential business from time to time, according to the mayor.
Despite ongoing media attention to manpower shortages in City Hall, the city hired Belair with little fanfare at the end of March. She has reportedly held the position of tax assessor previously in North Smithfield, Johnston, Hopkinton and Bristol, and has past experience with multiple revaluations in those communities.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo