Inside Town Government: The Tax Assessor’s Office

By Ron Scopelliti

Ask Smithfield Tax Assessor Drew Manlove what the function of his office is, and the answer rolls off his tongue as if it’s never far from his mind: “The primary purpose of my office,” he says, “is to ensure fair and equitable taxation in the Town of Smithfield. It’s really that simple.”

He explains that Smithfield, like many communities, works on a system of “ad valorem” taxation. “This means that we’re taxed according to the value of our property – so there’s not a flat tax.” One of the main functions of his office is to make sure that the valuations the town uses are accurate, and “to try and make sure that you’re paying no more and no less than your fair share of the taxes.”

This is accomplished through property assessments. In Rhode Island properties are re-assessed every three years. Based on recent market activity, the assessors try to establish what each property in town is worth. This is currently underway, and next year’s tax bills will reflect the values that are now being determined. This year’s bills are based on the assessment that took place in 2015.

This year’s isn’t a “full revaluation,” where every property is visited. That type of revaluation takes place only every nine years.

“Most people should not expect a knock on the door,” Manlove says, noting that they’re most likely to visit properties that have recently sold to make sure they have accurate data.

One thing a revaluation doesn’t do, he says, is raise the overall amount of taxes the town, as a whole, pays. That’s a function of the town budget, which is approved at the annual Financial Town Meeting.

“People often see these revaluations as a mechanism for the town to raise more tax money,” Manolve says. “That is not the purpose of these revaluations, nor is it the purpose of this office.

“My job is not to determine how much tax money is coming into the town, but to make sure that you’re paying just your little slice of the pie, and no more or no less than it’s fair for you to pay.”

To that end, taxpayers have the right to appeal their property valuations if they think they’re inaccurate. This opportunity is available each year (not just during revaluation years), and the appeal deadline is listed in the annual tax bill. Appeal applications are available online and in the office.

“I really relish the opportunity to go through the appeal process and to see what people are telling us,” Manlove says. “The main part of my job is to get these values right. So if we have something wrong, I want to know about it, and I want to make it right.”

The Tax Assessor’s Office also administers abatements and exemptions available to town residents.

“There are five primary property tax benefits that one can qualify for in the town,” Manlove says. Various benefits are available to senior citizens older than 65, veterans, the disabled, the blind, and residents who have historic stone walls that meet particular criteria.

“Our office is responsible for administering those exemptions,” Manlove says, though they’re not responsible for establishing or changing the rules.

“We take the rules that are outlined, and we’re responsible for administering them.”

He notes that, though the town has extensive data on property, they don’t have enough data on residents to notify them that they qualify for benefits. So it’s up to the residents to get the ball rolling.

“Once we have them through the doors,” Manlove says, “we relish the opportunity to help people through the process.”

Detailed information on benefits and appeals are available on the office’s website, as are downloadable forms to fill out. The web site offers a wealth of other information, including a link to the Vision Associates database, which has extensive data on every property in town.

Manlove says that one of his goals is to subvert what he sees as negative expectations of the public when dealing with municipal and government services. He aims to do this by providing residents with clear information, and a positive, helpful attitude in the office.

“It’s important to me that it’s helpful, informational, and seeks to add clarity and transparency to the taxation process, and that it’s not one that’s combative, difficult, or argumentative,” he says. “The way our office interfaces with the public is of vital importance.”