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7/9/2014 2:00:00 PM
Somerville Assessment Situation a Mess, Assessors' Agent Says

Jim Murphy, assessors' agent for Somerville. (D. Lobkowicz photo)
Jim Murphy, assessors' agent for Somerville. (D. Lobkowicz photo)
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By Dominik Lobkowicz

With incomplete and incorrect assessing data and a history of discriminatory past practice, Somerville Assessors' Agent Jim Murphy said the situation is a 40-year mess in the making.

Murphy started as Somerville's assessors' agent in September 2013, and serves in the same role for seven other Midcoast towns. He has been certified as an assessor since 1994.

After he started in Somerville, Murphy said he has found assessing information regarding properties in town is incorrect, disorganized, and, in some cases, missing.

"All of that," Murphy said. "The records need to be rebuilt from the ground up."

As an example, Murphy said he found one Somerville property owner this spring who owns five parcels totaling around 1,200 acres, and the town has them down for only about 400 acres.

"We're not even sure of the parcel count" for the town, Murphy said, estimating Somerville has around 500 to 600 parcels of land in total. "That should be a fairly static number."

"It's so messed up. I know what I'm doing and I can't even figure it out," he said.

Another issue with the valuations is the result of a past practice in Somerville to revalue only properties that sold, and to base those revaluations on the properties' sale prices. Murphy said he confirmed with the state auditor that the practice had taken place.

"That is a discriminatory practice," Murphy said. "We don't do that anymore."

The current members of the Somerville Board of Selectmen, who also comprise the town's board of assessors, are "committed to solving this predicament," Murphy said.

As part of the effort to address the problems, Bill Duffy, of geographic information systems firm Northern Geomantics, is creating the first tax maps the town has ever had, Murphy said.

Regarding the supporting documentation or survey information Duffy is having to rely on in making the maps, around 70 percent of the information is "very solid," 20 percent is a "best guess," and "10 percent we haven't got a clue," according to Murphy.

Some property owners have deeds that lack any definitive description, Murphy said.

As an example, he shared one deed that listed the names of abutting property owners on only two sides, the town of Washington on a third, and was missing the fourth, and still did not define where the boundaries themselves were located.

"Bill's pretty good at this, and I've got a pretty good clue, but we can't figure out some of the deeds," Murphy said.

Using recorded deeds and surveys from the county, Murphy and Duffy are hoping to get the best information into the town's records over the coming year.

Somerville's assessing information is 40 to 45 years behind the times, according to Murphy, and even once he and Duffy chase down the clues for the best information on location and acreage of the parcels, "we'll never have them all right," he said.

The individual assessments will be based on the best information available, and are often superseded by new surveys, Murphy said.

"My towns grow and shrink every year based on better data," he said.

Not much can be done with the parcels' assessments, however, until the acreages are squared away, Murphy said. It could be one to two years before those adjustments begin, he said.

Murphy will be computerizing Somerville's assessment data throughout the process, and hopes the town will choose to maintain the assessments going forward with periodic market adjustments.

"I'm big on maintaining," Murphy said. "It's more expensive to rebuild the house than it is to fix the roof."

The recourse for any property owners concerned about their assessment would be to file a tax abatement request with Murphy, which would then go to the board of assessors for the town, he said.

Murphy generally has office hours at the Somerville Town Office in the afternoon of the last Monday each month. To set up an appointment, call the town office at 549-3828.

In the municipal budget this year, voters approved an additional 94 hours for Murphy to work on correcting the town's assessing issues. He hopes to start utilizing those additional hours in January.

"If people are patient, understanding, we'll get it figured out," he said.

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