BERLIN — The city council Monday night approved hiring separate legal counsel for the Board of Assessors. The board had requested in writing that the city provided it with legal representation as its abatement process faces possible review by the N.H. Board of Tax and Land Appeals.
City Manager James Wheeler provided a contract with the Concord law firm of Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell and the board of assessors. The city will be billed at the hourly rate of $325 and $225 for attorney time and $125 for paralegal work.
GCG requested a $5,000 retainer.
Councilor Mike Rozek questioned why City Attorney Chris Boldt told Board of Assessors Chair Robert Goddard he could not represent the board because he represents the city manager and council.
Mayor Paul Grenier said he does not have the authority to direct the city attorney. He said that authority rests with the council as a whole.
Rozek, whose wife, Kem Rozek, serves on the board of assessors, asked Wheeler if he directed Boldt not to represent the board. Wheeler said he did not.
Councilor Lucie Remillard asked again if Boldt serves at the direction of the city manager. Wheeler repeated that he did not direct Boldt not to represent the board of assessors.
Rozek again questioned why Boldt does not represent the board of assessors. As a result, he said the city is forced to seek other legal representation for the board of assessors.
Remillard moved to hire Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell to provide legal representation to the board of assessors and Rozek seconded the motion.
Councilor Peter Higbee asked if the city had an estimate how much it will cost.
Grenier said the cost will depend on the BTLA.
In an Aug. 9 order, the BTLA has ordered city to respond to allegations that the board of assessors granted a number of disproportionate abatements. The order was spurred by a written complaint made to the BTLA by Berlin taxpayer Stephen Dion. Dion wrote that his property value increased from $107,700 to $120,500 in the statistical update performed by KRT Appraisal.
He applied to the board for abatement, arguing the value of his property was $100,000. Dion wrote that his request was denied because the board said he had not provided it with comparable properties to support his argument of value. Dion said he had provided the board with five properties but said it was hard to find a similar style house.
He also said he provided the board with an opinion of market value and comparative market analysis from a local real estate agent. He also alleged he was told he could not attend the abatement meeting on his property.
Dion told the BTLA he was not going to appeal the board of assessors’ decision until he read in the newspaper that all three members of the board of assessors were granted abatements as well as the son of one member. He pointed out that while 100 percent of the board received abatements, more than 50 percent of total abatement applications were denied.
Furthermore, Dion said the total property value reduction of the three board members and the son of Kem Rozek came to $112,575. He said the total of the 44 other abatements granted came to $134,000.
In its written order, the BTLA said it has “broad authority to remedy the inequities of improper and illegal taxation” and that authority extends to tax abatements as well as to original property assessments.
Before determining whether there is a need to assert jurisdiction, the BTLA said it is first ordering the city to respond to the allegation contained in the Dion letter within 30 days.
The city council had initially requested the Department of Revenue Administration conduct a review four to six abatements including the abatements granted to the board members after receiving a complaint from property owner Marc Lauze.
In his letter requesting legal counsel, Assessing Board Chair Robert Goddard said he objected to the board being judged on such a small sampling. Grenier noted Monday that the city has withdrawn its request for the DRA get involved since jurisdiction is with the BTLA.
Goddard complained that the board was without legal representation as it entered a legal process.
He also said the board and the board members are “being judged on as yet unfounded complaints by public forum questioning” of members integrity, competence and objectivity.