- File: Matt Mignanelli
Twenty-five years ago, Sally Abruzzi was living in a Philadelphia suburb when a city reappraisal valued her home at more than she thought it was worth. The calculations seemed off: Comparable homes had lower assessments, despite having more amenities.
"I just pointed out things they hadn't taken into account," Abruzzi said. The city reduced her assessment.
So in December, when Abruzzi challenged the value of her present-day home in Burlington, she hoped for a similar result.
Abruzzi argued that her East Village Drive condo should have been assessed closer to the value of other one-bedroom units in her complex, not $50,000 higher. Members of the city Board of Tax Appeals, however, ruled that size matters in calculating value — Abruzzi's abode is nearly 200 square feet roomier than the place next door. The board left her new $284,700 valuation unchanged.
The figure is about 50 percent more than her home's assessed value before Burlington's citywide reassessment in 2021, its first in 16 years. A senior with a modest income, Abruzzi said the city is becoming less affordable.
"I can't argue with it," Abruzzi, 84, said of the board's decision. "I'm not happy about it, but I accept it."
Abruzzi is among the 520 Burlington property owners who fought their valuations last fall in the second round of appeals since the new figures came out last year.
With the process nearly over, Seven Days analyzed city data to determine how property owners fared and found that, unlike Abruzzi, most succeeded in bringing down their valuations, at least a little bit. But in interviews, many homeowners said the two-year reassessment generally left them unsatisfied — and saddled with higher taxes. City officials say they are exploring better ways to do it next time.
The state Department of Taxes mandated Burlington's reassessment in July 2018, after it found that values listed on the tax roll had dropped too far below fair market. Because Vermont uses property taxes to support education funding statewide, each municipality has to pay its fair share — which requires a relatively up-to-date assessment of its property values.
The Burlington process has been contentious since the new valuations were released last spring. Residents were shocked to learn just how high their home values had skyrocketed and complained about numerous errors made by the city's hired consultant, Texas company Tyler Technologies. Nearly 1,500 residential property owners filed appeals with Tyler in the first round, but fewer than a third were successful.
When higher tax bills followed the higher assessments, a second shock wave rippled through the city. Homeowners took a hit because the pandemic home-buying boom had driven up values. Commercial property owners, meanwhile, got a break since their buildings' worth is based on cash flow — which in many cases all but dried up during the economic shutdown. Tax increases on apartment buildings trickled down to tenants, worsening an already unaffordable rental market. Homeowners considered selling or put off needed home repairs to make ends meet.
The second round of appeals, open only to those who challenged their assessments the first time, wrapped up just before the holidays. Most property owners opted for a hearing with the Board of Tax Appeals, an all-volunteer board that makes property value adjustments. Others signed settlement agreements with the assessor's office.
The appeals collectively dropped the grand list by about $58.5 million, a significant number, but not enough to create a shortfall in the city's expected tax revenue. In other words, City Assessor John Vickery said, taxpayers will not be taxed more to make up for the millions in reductions.
The majority — 239 — of 520 appellants were single-family homeowners. Owners of multifamily homes, apartment buildings and condos collectively filed about 230 more appeals. Just 24 commercial properties went through the process. Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3), who serves on the Board of Tax Appeals, noticed that commercial property owners were far more prepared than the average homeowner. Many had legal representation.
"There's a sort of inequality to that part of the process, the level of support that folks might have going in to a hearing," Magee said.
Data show that single-family homeowners were nearly as likely to get their valuation reduced as their commercial counterparts, albeit by a far lower percentage. On average, single-family homeowners saw a 7.5 percent decrease in assessed value, with a median reduction of $28,800. Commercial properties, including vacant lots and those with residential units, won an average decrease of 23.4 percent in their valuations, with a median reduction of $147,950.
The homeowner with the largest dollar decrease was Amy Tarrant, a philanthropist and racehorse breeder whose mansion off South Prospect Street is the city's highest-valued single-family home. Her eight-bedroom colonial estate, which originally doubled in value, dropped by nearly $1.2 million on second appeal after a representative for Tarrant showed the assessor's office two private appraisals with lower values. Her home's new value is $5.2 million.
Some downtown developers also fared well. Affordable housing outfit Cathedral Square got close to a $4.2 million reduction for its Cherry Street high-rise, knocking down a $5.8 million valuation to $1.6 million. CityPlace Burlington developer Don Sinex successfully argued that the former Macy's building just up the street — now the temporary home of Burlington High School — should be reduced from the city-given figure of $11.2 million. And it was, by $3.2 million.
The city also cut nearly $900,000 from its new valuation for two vacant parcels on Pine Street, which were valued at just over $1 million. Owned by Stowe developer Rick Davis, the combined eight-acre property is on the market for $2.5 million.
Hoover Street resident Alan Crawford was among those who got a paltry adjustment. Crawford appealed his home's $147,300 jump in value, arguing that appraisers shouldn't have counted a completely unusable bathroom in his basement as a functional facility. The home needs a lot of work, he told the city, and was rejected by two insurance carriers due to its condition. The Board of Tax Appeals trimmed $3,400 off the value, reducing Crawford's tax bill by just $73.
"Overall a complete waste of my time," Crawford wrote in an email to Seven Days.
Crawford had also attempted to compare his house to his neighbors', some of which were recently renovated or have views of Lake Champlain. Alan Bjerke, a former attorney who chairs the Board of Tax Appeals, said that's the most common approach in appeals — and the least effective.
Bjerke, who presided over nearly 300 hearings last year, said comparing a home's quality to another only tells part of the story. Appraisers also consider square footage — as in Abruzzi's case — location, building materials and other data. Examples of recent home sales are more persuasive, Bjerke said.
Hoping to glean some insight on the process, Caroline Street resident Sue Schein, whom Seven Days featured in a cover story about the reassessment last August, attended several hearings before her own in October. Schein had planned to argue that her home's new assessment of $605,300 was too high compared to several others on her street. But she decided to focus on sales of similar homes after she saw such pitches fall flat.
Days before Schein's scheduled hearing, Vickery, the city assessor, sent her a letter offering to reduce her assessment by $112,100. The adjustment took $2,425 off her tax bill. Schein, who feared that she would be priced out of her beloved neighborhood, was overjoyed.
"I wept. Really. My face just melted," Schein wrote in an email to Seven Days. "[It] felt like I was a snake, shedding years of molt in one minute; the stress falling away like sheets of skin."
Unlike Schein, North Street resident Braden Harden didn't realize that the home value comparison wouldn't work, and he presented a spreadsheet of similar properties at his hearing, according to a city memo about the meeting. But when the Board of Tax Appeals considered market prices for other well-maintained homes in desirable neighborhoods, it raised his assessment by $40,800. Seven other Burlington property values went up after appeals, though Harden's increase was by far the largest among the contested single-family homes.
A handful of property owners are taking their grievances to the next level. Eight are appealing to the state Department of Taxes, and three are suing the city in Vermont Superior Court. Vickery said the low number is a testament to the Board of Tax Appeals' good work.
Time, effort and money could also be factors. Appealing to the state costs $70, whereas filing a lawsuit is nearly $300. Commercial real estate owners are better prepared for the cost, and time commitment, involved in legal action, Vickery said.
Matthew Van Order is taking his chances with a lawsuit after his single-family home on Charlotte Street nearly doubled in value. Unsatisfied with his appeal to Tyler Technologies last spring, Van Order challenged his valuation again in October and asked for a site visit. He was baffled when members of the Board of Tax Appeals said his home's siding was high quality.
"Are you kidding me? It's aluminum siding from the '70s," said Van Order, who works as a contractor. "It's ugly as sin."
The board dropped his original $437,200 valuation by $34,200 — about half the reduction Van Order had requested.
Van Order said he's suing for peace of mind, to know that he did everything he could to lower his taxes. He hopes the city improves the process next time, by doing the work in-house from the start. "Then somebody would be responsible," he said.
The city is already considering making some changes. In November, Councilor Magee spearheaded a resolution to form an ad hoc committee to hear public testimony about the reappraisal process and analyze the fairness of the city's tax system. The committee is tasked with making final recommendations in June.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said Burlington's reassessment generally assigned properties their fair market value, but he questioned the equity of the process. The mayor pointed to news stories showing that reassessments nationwide tend to overvalue inexpensive homes, including in lower-income Black neighborhoods, and undervalue homes in affluent areas — shifting the cost burden away from those most able to shoulder it.
The mayor's own $816,200 home, in Burlington's desirable Hill Section, rose in value, but because the increase was below the citywide average, his taxes went down.
The national trend was documented in a 2020 study by the University of Chicago, which found evidence of this inequity in more than 90 percent of the 2,600 U.S. counties researchers studied. Weinberger raised these concerns during Burlington's reappraisal.
"I think we took safeguards that are industry standards to try to address that, but I think the whole industry is being questioned and examined," Weinberger said. "I do support us learning as much as we can from the process and making systemic improvements if there are opportunities to do so."
Many people have already suggested that the city have more frequent reassessments, a concept that Vickery, the city assessor, supports. Both Schein, the Caroline Street resident, and Magee proposed using an ombudsperson to oversee the process and navigate disputes between appraisers and property owners.
Bjerke thinks that the city should host a forum to teach taxpayers how to effectively fight their valuations, since he's seen firsthand how confusing the process can be.
"Giving people a little bit more information about how we make our decisions and what factors we will and won't consider would ultimately be very helpful," said Bjerke, who has applied for a spot on the ad hoc committee. "I'm ready to write the script."