Boston is renowned for inequities in real estate valuations and tax abatements, but new Assessing Department leadership is determined to produce realistic figures that will benefit all taxpayers. Numb toes are an occupational hazard for Boston assessors John O'Connor and Anthony Fanara.
Walking through ankle-deep snow, Mr. Fanara unwinds his tape measure across the front of a two-story colonial in West Roxbury. He takes separate measurements of a porch, then disappears around the corner to mark off the side and back of the house. The findings are duly recorded by Mr. O'Connor, who has already learned from the woman at home that the house has eight rooms, a fireplace, an attic, but no garage -- details the city needs to determine for tax purposes how much her house is worth.
The triennial appraisal of property within Boston's city limits is well under way -- and this time city officials want to ensure that the revaluation process measures up to state standards.
``We have to go out and do it as if we've never seen these houses before,'' says Commissioner William B. Coughlin, who was appointed a year ago to head the Assessing Department for the Flynn administration.
The fiscal 1983 revaluation, accomplished during the tenure of former Mayor Kevin H. White, was the first citywide reassessment in 50 years. However, much of the data that contractors collected about Boston's one-, two-, and three-family homes later proved to be inaccurate and have been discarded, Mr. Coughlin says.
Part of the problem then was a lack of ``quality control,'' he says. It was ``entirely possible'' for a data collector to visit one house on the block, write fictitious information on fact sheets for the other houses, and spend the rest of the day at Carson Beach, he adds.
This time Boston has hired a single appraisal firm, Property Systems Inc. of Cleveland, to collect data on residential properties. The city is keeping tabs on the company's 40 data collectors: When assistant assessors O'Connor and Fanara went tromping through the snow in West Roxbury, they were double-checking information that had been recorded a month earlier by data collector No. 056.
``What he did was very good work -- for this week at least,'' O'Connor says of No. 056's performance. City assessors are checking, at random, 5 percent of Property Systems' work -- and so far are pleased with the findings, he adds.
The revaluation began in September and is expected to continue through March. Eventually, a new computer system back at City Hall will spew out an assessment, based on market sales of comparable property, for each of the 64,000 houses and 6,000 vacant lots in Boston. Property-tax bills for fiscal year 1986 (which begins July 1, 1985) will be based on these assessments. Although no figures have been released, Commissioner Coughlin says residential property in Boston is appreciating by 25 to 30 percent a year, with the greatest jump in value among two- and three-family homes.
``You never get through revaluation without some public outcry,'' Coughlin says, noting that homeowners will have opportunities to dispute the new assessments at public hearings.
This year, however, the ``public outcry'' sounds less vociferous than before -- partly because Coughlin has worked with a citizen advisory committee of Realtors, neighborhood groups, and housing experts to ``open up the [revaluation] process.''
Raymond Torto, a former assessing commissioner who now heads a consulting firm, says Coughlin ``is on the right track'' toward correcting technical flaws of the '83 revaluation. ``That's why I've agreed to help and serve on the advisory committee,'' he says.
As further proof, city officials cite a drop in the number of applications for tax abatements this year -- from 10,000 to 4,500.
Coughlin says his goal is not only to finish this year's revaluation, but also ``to put in place a system that we can refer to in [revaluations for] '89 and '92.'' But it will take time to hire new staff and to retrain the old, he says.
There has been a 40 percent turnover in staff during his first year at the helm, Coughlin says. He explains that many people were fired and others left ``because they were being asked to do a day's work.''
Indeed, veterans O'Connor and Fanara say the department, which used to be ``sort of a political dumping ground,'' is becoming more professional. ``Now, if you're a good worker, you have a chance to advance,'' O'Connor says. ``Promotions are based on merit, not politics.''