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O'Connor denies conflict, says board has no role in assessing specific properties

Based on an inquiry from the public, YourArlington has asked questions about the assessment of 16 Spy Pond Parkway (shown below), a home owned until 2017 by James Doherty, who until 2014 was a member of the Board of Assessors.

16 Spy Pond Parkway, town database                                                    Town property database

The questions were directed to Mary Winstanley O'Connor, who has been on the Board of Assessors since 2001 and is seeking reelection.

 In January 2019, the assessors published this explainer for the “Recent Tax Assessment and Tax Bill Changes.” It says, in part: “The areas of largest assessment changes are neighborhoods 2 (Kelwyn Manor) and 11 (the Massachusetts Avenue corridor).” 

In explaining the 25-percent tax change for neighborhood 2 (Kelwyn Manor), the board wrote, “For example, there were five home sales in neighborhood 2, Kelwyn Manor, in 2017. As the table below shows, sales of these homes were between 16% and 54% above their previous assessments.” 

The table shows “Property 1” with a 2018 assessment of $1,138,100, a sales price of $1,755,000, for a sales/assessment ratio of 154 percent. At a 142-percent assessment change, this property had the largest increase cited by the Board of Assessors for Kelwyn Manor. 

Ice House Realty Trust

Until it was sold in 2017, this property, 16 Spy Pond Parkway, was owned by “Ice House Nominee Realty Trust,” of which O'Connor was a trustee. Doherty, on the board until 2014, listed it as his legal residence. The activity on the property card for 16 Spy Pond Parkway (the only sale that matches the “Property 1” values cited by the Board of Assessors) shows that it was inspected and measured in 2017. The sale triggered a reassessment to $1,611,800 for the following tax year, a 42-percent increase.

Thus, the assessors cited the sale of this property as a factor in the rise of the property-tax rate by 25 percent for all property owners in neighborhood 2 (Kelwyn Manor).

The board’s own analysis shows that the prior-year assessment undervalued that property by at least 42 percent, with the undervaluation having a net effect of providing a significant tax break. In this light, YourArlington asked:

  • Because Doherty and you were members of the Board of Assessors over part of the period that the home was owned (2008-2017), do you view your role in this matter as a conflict of interest? If not, why not?
  • Did the assessors in the years preceding the 2017 sale hold down the assessment? If it did not, can you provide evidence about that decision?

Board member responds in detail

O'Connor responded to these questions in detail, denying there was a conflict or that the board had any direct role in controlling the assessment of any specific town property. Her statement is published in full.

Mary Winstanley O'Connor, Board of Assessors candidate, 2020 photoO'Connor

You have asked that I respond to your inquiry concerning the fiscal 2018 assessment of the five parcels that sold in neighborhood 2 in 2017 and the owners of 16 Spy Pond Parkway. Specifically, there is an erroneous suggestion in your inquiry that members of the Board of Assessors manipulated the assessment of 16 Spy Pond Parkway, a property previously owned by a former member of the board, to provide some type of benefit to the property owner.

The unequivocal answer to this question is that the Board of Assessors did no such thing and could not do so. I would question the motives of the individual providing this false narrative.

Outside consultants value properties 

The undisputed facts are as follows:

                              1. The Board of Assessors does not place values on individual properties in the Town of Arlington. It is the long-standing practice, as in nearly all cities and towns, that the properties are valued by outside consultants during the periodic townwide valuations and in the interim years by the full-time director of assessments, who is supervised by, reports and answers to the town manager, not the Board of Assessors.

                              2. Properties in town are valued using mass-appraisal techniques, which techniques are used to calculate the value of a group of properties based on market activity (sales) as well as certain property specific attributes such as location, size, construction, quality, style and condition. These techniques provide for statistical modeling and tests to confirm the accuracy of the data.

                              3. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue, through its Bureau of Local Assessment, also performs a review and analysis of the data provided every five years as part of a rigorous recertification process and also reviews and analyzes the values submitted by the town during the interim years to ensure fair cash values are maintained. Each and every year, the Department of Revenue has approved and certified Arlington’s values.

                              4. The Board of Assessors only considers the values placed on individual properties when taxpayers file applications for abatements, challenging the values placed on their home by either the director of assessments or the outside consultant. There were no such abatement requests for 16 Spy Pond Parkway.

                              5. Had you reviewed the property record card, which I did to respond to your inquiry, you would have learned that this property was also inspected and measured in 2009 and 2012, not just in 2017, as you suggest.

                              6. To be clear, as a matter of law, the fiscal 2018 assessments for the five properties in neighborhood 2 referenced in the board’s January 2019 publication were based, in part, on market data (sales) that occurred prior to Jan. 1, 2017.

                              7. The fiscal 2019 assessments, as a matter of law, were based, in part, on market data (sales) that occurred after Jan. 1, 2017, and prior to Jan. 1, 2018. Those sales for the five homes that sold in neighborhood 2 established that the area experienced a significant increase in value due to market activity subsequent to Jan. 1, 2017. Four of the five sales had an assessment change of between 34% and 42%, an average increase of 33%. The individual attempting to create this false narrative is not suggesting that the Board of Assessors prior to fiscal 2019 was purposely undervaluing these five homes and, by implication, all other homes in neighborhood 2 to provide the neighborhood 2 residents with a tax savings? Such a suggestion is false and absurd.

                              8. The reality is that market conditions after Jan. 1, 2107, based, in part, on these sales, required the director to increase the values in neighborhood 2 by 25% to arrive at fair cash value for this neighborhood.

                              9. The Board of Assessors could not “hold down the assessment” of these five properties for fiscal 2018 because the individual valuations are not done by the board, the board does not review individual values except when a taxpayer files an application for abatement and the mass-appraisal model requiring statistical testing would reveal the anomaly if sales prior to Jan. 1, 2017, contradicted the assessments proposed.
                1. No ownership, conflict

                2. I have had and have no ownership or beneficial interest in 16 Spy Pond Parkway; I merely served as a trustee. As neither I nor any other member of the board was involved in determining the individual assessment of any particular property in town and did not participate in any abatement application for Mr. Doherty, who incidentally resigned from the board in 2014, there was and is no conflict of interest.

On a personal note, I have practiced law for 38 years and have a number of clients that reside in Arlington. When any of these clients file applications for abatements, exemptions and/or deferrals, I recuse myself from the hearing and any action on the request.

I would humbly suggest that anyone I have represented as a client, or has worked with me as a volunteer in our town or who knows me, is well aware of the high ethical standards I ascribe to. I view my service on the board as my civic service to our town and my oath of office as an elected assessor and attorney as a solemn promise of the trust placed in me.

Very truly yours,

Mary Winstanley O’Connor


Feb. 15, 2020: O'Connor: Assessor veteran, facing challengers, touts long experience


This inquiry with response was published Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

What do you think? Your commenents are welcome. To be published, you must include your full name.

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Comments

Guest - Gordon Jamieson on Saturday, 30 May 2020 08:27
Assessments - Jamieson comments...

First - To the issues raised above

1 - I assume that Ms. Winstanley O'Connor is familiar as should be all elected officials with the state ethics training process and has reviewed these issues through that training process .. Or in consultation with our Town Counsel to insure that there is no conflict of interest, real/implied.

2 - Ms. Winstanley O'Connor misstates the employee reporting structure during her tenure as trustee for the property in question .. While the Director of Assessments does currently report to the Town Manager (with Board of Assessor oversight) .. Until a couple of years ago the Director of Assessment was a direct hire of and reported directly to the Board

3 - I assume that the position of Trustee is a paid position (legal billing)

But these issues deflect from the key issues facing the Board

Can they make the assessment process more transparent .. And by that I mean, can they provide full disclosure of the metrics (land acreage, finished sq ft, grade, condition, neighborhood) employed to assess personal property and in the case of residential property how each of the parameters factors (with defined metrics) into determining the assessed value of land and structures

Can they provide detailed information regarding the assessment of commercial property, especially given that its increase value has trailed that of residential properties over the the past two decades .. At least the land value should be inflating at a rate similar to that of residential land

Can they implement QA/QC processes that identify outliers (land or structure valuations that fall outside of the mean by more than one standard deviation

Will they provide public assess to the documents that they file with the state (beyond the report provided to the Select Board during the annual tax hearing each December

And finally will they consider updating the procedures (and by that I mean a complete overhaul) by which assessed values are obtained vs. continuing to employ a system that is decades old

Things need to change and I would like to help make that happen!

First - To the issues raised above 1 - I assume that Ms. Winstanley O'Connor is familiar as should be all elected officials with the state ethics training process and has reviewed these issues through that training process .. Or in consultation with our Town Counsel to insure that there is no conflict of interest, real/implied. 2 - Ms. Winstanley O'Connor misstates the employee reporting structure during her tenure as trustee for the property in question .. While the Director of Assessments does currently report to the Town Manager (with Board of Assessor oversight) .. Until a couple of years ago the Director of Assessment was a direct hire of and reported directly to the Board 3 - I assume that the position of Trustee is a paid position (legal billing) But these issues deflect from the key issues facing the Board Can they make the assessment process more transparent .. And by that I mean, can they provide full disclosure of the metrics (land acreage, finished sq ft, grade, condition, neighborhood) employed to assess personal property and in the case of residential property how each of the parameters factors (with defined metrics) into determining the assessed value of land and structures Can they provide detailed information regarding the assessment of commercial property, especially given that its increase value has trailed that of residential properties over the the past two decades .. At least the land value should be inflating at a rate similar to that of residential land Can they implement QA/QC processes that identify outliers (land or structure valuations that fall outside of the mean by more than one standard deviation Will they provide public assess to the documents that they file with the state (beyond the report provided to the Select Board during the annual tax hearing each December And finally will they consider updating the procedures (and by that I mean a complete overhaul) by which assessed values are obtained vs. continuing to employ a system that is decades old Things need to change and I would like to help make that happen!
Guest - Errol Tashjian on Tuesday, 12 May 2020 18:58
Comment from Errol Tashjian, Candidate for Board of Assessors

I won’t comment on the current board’s actions or the accusations being leveled against my opponent.

What I would like to say is that, from the start, I have been running on a platform of transparent and accurate assessments based on my personal experience with an unfair assessment. I believe I can offer a needed fresh perspective.

Additionally, public resources should be directed toward mitigating sales/assessment ratio anomalies to arrive at, or improve upon, the 90-110% state guidelines. For every exception noted, we, as citizens of the Town, should be asking ourselves, could the Assessor, given the available market data, have computed a more accurate assessment?

As a candidate and hopeful future Board member, I will work to ensure that publicly available data is used effectively by the Assessor's office for purposes of eliminating such variances to determine the most accurate and transparent assessment policy.

I won’t comment on the current board’s actions or the accusations being leveled against my opponent. What I would like to say is that, from the start, I have been running on a platform of transparent and accurate assessments based on my personal experience with an unfair assessment. I believe I can offer a needed fresh perspective. Additionally, public resources should be directed toward mitigating sales/assessment ratio anomalies to arrive at, or improve upon, the 90-110% state guidelines. For every exception noted, we, as citizens of the Town, should be asking ourselves, could the Assessor, given the available market data, have computed a more accurate assessment? As a candidate and hopeful future Board member, I will work to ensure that publicly available data is used effectively by the Assessor's office for purposes of eliminating such variances to determine the most accurate and transparent assessment policy.
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