City must pay former school board member after he wins tax dispute

City must pay former school board member after he wins tax dispute

WOONSOCKET – Christopher Roberts, a former member of the Woonsocket School Committee, and his wife, Jessica, will receive more than $10,000 in legal fees from the city and a tax adjustment on their property going back three years after Providence Superior Court ruled the city improperly taxed the couple’s property and illegally handled the appeal that followed.

In a decision filed Sep. 12, Justice Bennett Gallo determined a majority of the couple’s property at 507 Rhodes Ave. was eligible for the city’s single-family homestead tax exemption. Furthermore, the court determined the Woonsocket Board of Assessment Review had violated the Open Meetings Act when considering an appeal on the matter in 2017. According to City Solicitor John DeSimone, the city will pay $10,424 in legal fees to the plaintiffs, and the couple’s home will receive a tax adjustment of about $2,800 going back three years.

Christopher Roberts had requested to address the City Council regarding the status of the litigation on Monday, but withdrew his request at the last minute. City Council President Daniel Gendron told The Breeze the council did not need to approve the payment of attorney’s fees to the couple, as the payment was mandated by court order.

At the center of the dispute was whether the Roberts’ property, a Colonial farmhouse and former barn located on 1.8 acres of land, qualified for the city’s 30 percent single-family homestead exemption, a tax break meant to encourage families to purchase property and live in the buildings they own. In 2013, the Roberts were awarded the exemption after speaking with former city Tax Assessor Chris Celeste and applying to the Zoning Board of Review. However, in 2015, newly appointed city Tax Assessor Elyse Pare removed the exemption on the grounds that Christopher’s grandparents lived in a 600-square-foot detached accessory building on the property – the former barn – making it a two-family home. Instead, the Roberts received a 10 percent two-family exemption on the property.

When Christopher Roberts went to appeal the decision before the Board of Assessment Review, according to the lawsuit, the board notified him by letter his appeal had been denied without a public discussion or recording of a vote on the matter appearing on any public agenda or minutes. According to court documents, the city could not produce any minutes or evidence of a vote at the trial, leading the court to determine the board had violated the Open Meetings Act.

The court also determined that, based on the city’s definition of a single-family residence, the Roberts’ primary residence and land on which it resided were eligible for the single-family homestead exemption, but not the accessory dwelling where Christopher’s grandparents live, making the family eligible for a tax adjustment going back to 2015 on a portion of the property. As of the time of the court filing, according to the lawsuit, the primary house was assessed at a value of $84,400, the land was assessed at $49,500 and the accessory dwelling was assessed at $27,200.

The court finding is the second complaint of an Open Meetings Act violation the family has won against the board this year. In April, the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office found the Woonsocket Board of Assessment Review had violated the Open Meetings Act on a separate occasion in December of 2017 in response to a complaint by Christopher Roberts. At that time, Roberts had appeared before the council to request action ensuring the board abides by state regulations.

Comments

I think LBH forgot to mention this accomplishment in her inaugural speech. This was an obvious witch hunt that came up empty. I applaud Roberts for seeing this through and winning. What's right is right!