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Norwalk tax fight makes its way to Hartford

CT FOIA hearing Norwak Lynnelle Jones 025
Wilson Point resident Lynnelle Jones listens to Norwalk Assistant Corporation Counsel Diane Beltz-Jacobson at a Freedom of Information Commission hearing on Wednesday in Hartford.

NORWALK, Conn. – An angry but determined Norwalk taxpayer took her four-year fight against Norwalk City Hall to Hartford on Wednesday.

Members of the Freedom of Information Act Commission called their decision in the case brought by Lynnelle Jones, a Wilson Point resident, a “compromise” as they ordered the city of Norwalk to make an effort to get documents for her. But Assistant Corporation Counsel Diane Beltz-Jacobson said the documents don’t exist, although Jones has evidence suggesting they do – a paid invoice to an appraiser in the amount of $1,500.

Jones is seeking the results of an appraisal done by Sheehy Associates LLC  in reference to the 2008 valuation of her home at 10 Point Road, which she owns with her husband, William Lipschutz. She would also like a copy of minutes taken at a May 29, 2009, Board of Assessment Appeals hearing, which contested the valuation.

Jones says she has already “lost” a court case in the matter. The Board of Assessment Appeals denied her appeal of the city’s appraisal, and, on July 23, 2009, she filed an appeal in Stamford Superior Court. Court documents show that the city’s valuation was $2,599,200. Jones wanted it dropped to $1.75 million, which was the value determined by an appraiser she hired, Guy Rocco. On Sept. 13, 2012, Judge Taggart Adams ruled that $2.050 million was a fair appraisal.

Jones suspects that Sheehy’s appraisal matched hers. She would like to see it.

“It’s all over, but I just feel I have a right to this information,” she said to commissioners.

Hearing officer Valicia Dee Harmon said she felt there was “strong evidence” that such an appraisal exists.

“When I see the payment of $1,500 and then I see a public agency refer to an appraisal in their forms, and then I see the complainant able to find a picture that was part of an appraisal and I have her testimony that pictures were taken inside,” she said, “I find it very hard to believe there wasn’t more.”

Beltz-Jacobson, who has not been involved in any previous matters involving Jones’ complaints, said there is no written report.

“In fact, there is an appraiser who took pictures inside the property, and there was a payment made to that person, but that is not conclusive of the fact that an appraisal exists,” she said. “… There was an oral report given to the city and he was paid for his consultation, but there was no written report.”

Associate Corporation Counsel Brian McCann had handled correspondence on the matter. No city of Norwalk representatives made it to the March 25 hearing on Jones’ complaint. That was a preliminary hearing in which Harmon ruled in favor of Jones. That proposed final decision was considered by the FOI Commission during Wednesday’s hearing. Tax Assessor Michael Stewart was in attendance as well, waiting from 2 to 4 p.m. for the complaint to be considered.

Harmon’s proposed final decision included ordering Norwalk to provide the records to Jones free of charge.

Before the hearing, Jones said she was expecting Norwalk to present its argument against her, although the city hadn’t made it to Harmon’s hearing, even though it had been reminded.

“I do not believe that the city of Norwalk should get a second bite at the apple and to let them come up with legal argument after four-plus years of this nightmare,” she said in her opening remarks to the commission. “I think would be grossly grossly unfair. … The excuse that the city just forgot to come to the hearing is really hard to believe.”

But Beltz-Jacobson’s only argument was about paragraph 15 of the ruling, which concluded that an appraisal exists.

The commission voted to approve the decision made by Harmon, with two amendments. One quoted the city as saying that the BAA had not been keeping minutes at that point, and quoted the city as saying it does now. The city will turn over any records it has of the hearing in question, the ruling said.

The city is ordered to contact Sheehy Associates and attempt to get whatever documents it may have generated as a result of the work it did at Jones’ home.

“Sheehy and Associates must have something that the city must have paid for,” Harmon said. “If they have paid for it, they can call them up and get it and they can provide it to this complainant.”

Jones said the appraiser was there for an entire day and came back the next morning. She said she lost a full day of work for that, as well as for the two hearings she has attended in Hartford.

She said she feels appraisal modifiers are unfairly applied in her neighborhood. The view of Long Island Sound is rated as being better at her home than at other homes in the neighborhood, homes that sit directly on the water, documents in the tax assessor’s office show.

It’s not about money, it’s about the principle, she said. “In the process of my four-year fight, I’ve spent more money on attorneys than I would have saved in taxes.”

Correction made, 2:18 p.m.: Sheeney changed to Sheehy.

Comments

10 responses to “Norwalk tax fight makes its way to Hartford”

  1. dc2

    Deja Vu with the evil “block the public at all costs” mentality at city hall. It’s beyond belief that they have pulled the same stunt on this poor taxpayer by simply not bothering to show up for hearings: The same thing happened to me this year, and I didn’t even get the benefit of an automatic ruling in my favor, though I believe the Freedom of Information Act allows the hearing office to do just that.In my case, Attorney Spahr first claimed on the phone with FOIA staff that he thought my “matter” had been resolved, and then quickly backpedaled and claimed that the hearing date simply never made it to his calendar. Really? Seriously?
    And so after a drive to Hartford with the flu and raging fever, my first case gets postponed, and then delayed, and finally held, complete with insults and accusations from Mr. Spahr!
    Forget apples for their second bite – somebody please donate some appointment calendars and a really good FOIA handbook.

  2. Tea’d off

    $1500 and you don’t even get a report? How many other $1500 reports aren’t out there? Even if the house is valued properly, she deserves what she is asking for. Taxpayers should find this story extremely disturbing.

  3. It will be interesting to see if other homeowners challenge the current appraisals that are now happening or will they shy away because of the extraordinary effort (and money) needed to get viable information from the city.

  4. Tim T

    This is an exception to the rule..I would say that 99 percent of these issues are resolved by the zoning commission appeals board which is a very simple process and is far far from an extraordinary effort and involves no money.

  5. No, that really is not the case. Since this news article posted, I have talked at least 10 people who HAVE shied away from continuing their legal proceeding because of the costs involved and the time!! They have said the time to battle “city hall” is extraordinarily mandating and “taxing” (pardon the pun).

  6. Tim T

    To appeal the assessment is a very simple process. The form is online and takes about 5 minutes to fill out.
    http://www.norwalkct.org/index.aspx?NID=228
    NO COST NO ATTORNEY NEEDED
    The next step would be to gather evidence such as an appraisal if you have one and if not a Realtor appraisal will do. Also comps are needed to prove value. Both comps and Realtor appraisal are at NO COST.
    The next step is a hearing which lasts all of 10 minutes. Once again NO COST.
    I along with many many of my neighbors have done this and all have had their assessment lowered and the issue was resolved.
    No COURT NO ATTORNEY NO COST
    The 1 percent that does go to court I would assume were not prepared for the hearing or are not entitled to a reduction of the assessment as it is correct.

    (This comment has been edited to comply with our policy)

  7. It is very good that you had luck with this –
    All I am saying is that the people that I have talked to have not had your such luck.

    Some people have had success (you and your neighbors)
    and other people have NOT had success and were faced with legal fees and much time involvement (the people I’ve talked with about this issue).

    So Tim, it really is a personal issue and while you say it is only 1% (not sure how you arrived at this number) I’m sure THAT number is higher because people may not have persued the issue.

    The number you threw out is just like unemployement numbers – MANY people are not accounted for because they just give up and are “off the grid”.

    But, like I said, good for you and your neighbors that you were succesful.

  8. Mr Norwalk Ct

    Irish Girl
    You state

    The number you threw out is just like unemployement numbers – MANY people are not accounted for because they just give up and are “off the grid”.

    Do you have any evidence to back this up or is this just an assumption on you part?
    I have a friend who works in the assessor office and I questioned him in regards to the process. He stated all but 3 people has thier situation resolved at the appeals hearing level last year. Yes some did not get a change of value however the reason were acceptable to the homeowner.
    So it sems like a very fair and simple process.

  9. I make no assumptions at all “Mr Norwalk” but I know that my statement is true – do I need to provide every source of information? Sure, that would be nice but it is not at my fingertips and I really don’t have the time to pull up (feel free to do this on your own).

    But please let us know your source (friend in the assessor office), because that should be a name your are so familiar with and that people who may care about the source know that you are on the up and up. From the conversations I have had, that is not the case.

    It may be a very simple process, which is great, but not all outcomes are as you state.

    (editor’s note: This comment has been edited.)

    Ciao!

  10. Mr Norwalk Ct

    So irish Girl it’s assumption on your part.

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