Burlington Businesses Scored With Their Reassessment Appeals, While Homeowners Struck Out | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Mark Johnson Political Columnist

Burlington Businesses Scored With Their Reassessment Appeals, While Homeowners Struck Out

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

The success Burlington businesses had fighting their new property values is just another reason for homeowners to shake their heads over this year's messy citywide reassessment, which led to higher taxes for many.

Even City Assessor John Vickery is dissing how Tyler Technologies, the Texas firm hired to produce the values for residential properties, handled its share of the appeals.

The reassessment, released earlier this year, shifted some of the city's property tax burden away from commercial properties hard-hit by the pandemic and onto homeowners, whose property values have soared. Some of that shift was unavoidable, given the circumstances. But as Seven Days reporters documented a few weeks ago, a number of homeowners believed — and assembled evidence — that Tyler had overvalued their property.

They got short shrift during their appeals to Tyler, particularly in comparison to commercial property owners. Fewer than one-third of homeowners who appealed — 453 of 1,484 — saw their values lowered. By contrast, 70 percent of the commercial property owners who appealed received an adjustment. A different company, not Tyler, calculated the initial commercial property values.

"It's a horror" is how Burlington City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) described the poor success homeowners had when they appealed. Shannon said the percentage of people who saw a change, even a small one, should have been higher since property owners usually bring new information to the appeals hearing. Commercial property owners' success with their appeals makes much more sense, said Shannon, a real estate broker.

"I think, on the commercial side, that looks to me like those [who heard the appeals] did their job," Shannon said. "On the residential side, when you see that only 30 percent got any change, there's something really wrong."

Vickery didn't disagree, though he noted in Tyler's defense that 80 percent of homeowners did not appeal in the first place. Like Shannon, he said more residents should have seen changes in their assessments when they appealed. He suggested that Tyler just wanted to wrap up its work quickly.

"They go from municipality to municipality all around New England, and maybe they work in multiple towns. And when they're done with one, they're on to the next, and they do multiple reassessments at one time. So, they're pressured and pushed," Vickery told me last week.

"They're corporate-minded. They want to make a profit, and they want to get in and get out. They want to get the passing grade. We want the A-plus. And it's a struggle," he added. The only bids to do the city's residential reassessments were from out-of-state firms. Tyler has done reassessments for other Chittenden County communities, including recently in South Burlington.

There's still hope for homeowners dissatisfied with their assessments. The next round of appeals, more than 640 cases, is being heard by the local Board of Tax Appeals, made up of seven members of the public and three city councilors (including Shannon) who will split into three groups to review the cases. Collectively, they will hold 20-minute hearings, 18 times a day, three days a week for 11 weeks. The assessor's office will help, as well, even though it is short-staffed.

Vickery thinks the local reviews will be more thorough.

"We're here to stay," Vickery told me. "I think it's kind of like the difference between a property owner and a renter. Renters never take care of the house to the same degree that a property owner does."

I couldn't reach any of the "renters" at Tyler who worked on the Burlington reassessment or first round of appeals. A media specialist at the company headquarters in Texas referred me back to Vickery to discuss any complaints about the process.

And there were plenty. Residents complained that the original values Tyler came up with were random and based on incorrect information. During the first appeals, many said Tyler representatives were unresponsive and uninformed. One Tyler rep told a homeowner "I'm just the monkey" and had no idea what an accessory dwelling unit was.

Commercial property owners did much better on appeal, in part because of the different way those properties are assessed. Commercial values are based on the income the property generates; a home's value on the tax rolls depends on what a buyer would pay to purchase it.

The market for Burlington homes remained hot through the pandemic, while the months of shutdown reduced the income of many stores, hotels and other commercial property.

Partly because of this loss of income, 330 of 464 commercial property owners saw their assessment go down when they appealed, more than double the success rate of homeowners. Some of the reductions were huge. For example, one of three Burlington Town Center properties was slashed $8 million on appeal, from $14 million to $5.9 million, after a major tenant, L.L.Bean, had decided to vacate its downtown store.

While the median amount of a decrease for homeowners was $30,000, the median reduction for commercial property owners was $200,000. The reductions further tilted the burden onto the shoulders of homeowners — one more bitter pill in a process that's left many residents shocked and grumbling over higher tax bills.

Another reason so many commercial properties were reduced on appeal is the system used to calculate values. The city requests but does not require commercial property owners to provide income information. When they don't, the city uses models to make its best estimate. Vickery said he thinks some owners wait to see what the appraisers come up with and only provide the financial information to bolster an appeal.

The point is, changing the value of a commercial property on appeal is easier to do when new, hard financial information is provided, whereas homeowner grievances may be based on more subjective factors.

Vickery said he wants to push commercial property owners harder in the future to provide their financial information more regularly. Shannon says commercial property values should be reviewed again once we come out of the pandemic. Vickery cautioned that office building values may not rebound quickly if employees decide to continue working remotely.

One thing's for sure: Homeowners will get a more thoughtful and thorough hearing in the next round of appeals. That's what happens when it's your neighbors reviewing your case, not an out-of-state firm looking to get out of Dodge.

Departure Time

Gene Richards needs to stop wasting everyone's time and leave his post as aviation director of the Burlington International Airport.

You can't run a major operation effectively after an investigation concludes that you bullied your employees, union workers have called for your firing and your boss has lost all confidence in you.

Humiliating, screaming and cursing at employees is not leadership. Banging on tables and reminding people that they are "disposable" and you're the "big dog" running the airport is unacceptable conduct that violates city policy. Those are behaviors documented during a third-party investigation of Richards by attorney Anita Tinney of the Employee and Labor Relations Academy, who was hired by the city.

We've all seen movies in which the football coach gets in a quarterback's face and motivates him to victory, but that's Hollywood. In real life, that kind of behavior is unprofessional and, in the public sector, can trigger a lawsuit. 

And please, it is not credible to claim you were referring to yourself when you dropped F-bombs in a tense conversation with an employee.

Last Friday, Richards refusedfor the second time — Mayor Miro Weinberger's request that he step down. Instead, he is taking his case to the city council at a special meeting on September 9, where two-thirds of its 12 members must agree to terminate him. Trust me, they will.

"I think I should be able to stay, because I'm very good at what I do," Richards told Seven Days' Courtney Lamdin last Friday. "The product of that is the airport."

OK, on Richards' watch, the airport's credit rating has improved, cash reserves have grown, and management has landed several grants to upgrade the operation. That's great, but the airport's health is not the issue.

Richards, who makes $140,000 a year, told reporters last week that the investigation was flawed and incomplete, and the allegations were vague and greatly exaggerated. He claimed to recall only one conversation with an employee in which his tone was an issue, while the report found multiple corroborated instances of bullying and humiliation. 

Does Richards really want to rehash the investigation's findings in public — and explain again why he repeatedly tanked up his personal car at an airport gas station? That allegation triggered the probe, though the investigator found that it didn't breach city policies. Rather, it created "a perception of impropriety" and showed a "lapse in judgment" on Richards' part.

It seems highly unlikely that Richards can win the support of five city councilors, which he'll need in order to avoid being fired. He's got backing from Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), who says Richards "was thrown under the bus."

But I'd bet my last dollar that the six Progressive councilors will agree with the airport workers' union, which has called for Richards' departure, and that the four Democrats will line up behind the mayor, too.

As they should. 

Time Well Spent?

Burlington's long history of diving into international policy debates will likely continue at the city council's regular September 13 meeting, when Dieng is expected to introduce a resolution calling for an end to military aid to Israel and support for Palestinians living in occupied territories, including Gaza and the West Bank.

The resolution requests that the Vermont legislature and Gov. Phil Scott also demand the U.S. end its $3.8 billion in annual military aid to Israel and back nonviolent measures to end the occupation.

Dieng's proposal is likely to find some support — more than 100 people attended a rally in Burlington protesting Israel's occupation in May, the same month an estimated 250 Palestinians were killed and 1,900 injured in Israeli air attacks in Gaza.

The plight of the Palestinians is a tragedy, but let's hope for a short debate. The resolution will have no practical effect, and councilors have plenty of pressing problems right here at home.

Dieng agreed but said the council could multitask. He said residents brought the Palestinian issue to the attention of the city's Committee on Racial Equity, Inclusion & Belonging, which he chairs.

"I think everything is interconnected, and it is all coming down to the safety and well-being of the human being," Dieng said. "But it doesn't mean that issues that are here," including community concerns about the police, can't also be dealt with, he added.

Mark Johnson is off the next two weeks. Fair Game will return on September 22.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Commercial Success"