THEY SAY YOU CAN’T fight City Hall.
Don’t tell that to Laurie Ortolano. The slight 59-year-old was escorted out of Nashua City Hall on Jan. 22 by five police officers and later hit with a no-trespass order that makes it illegal for her to enter the building without an appointment.
She remains undaunted in her years-long effort to reveal inconvenient truths about Nashua’s Assessing Department, which determines how much value to place on a property for purposes of taxation.
Last week’s police action came after Ortolano staged a 20-minute sit-in outside the Legal Department. She says she was only trying to get time and date stamps on abatement requests she was filing on behalf of senior citizens who feel their properties have been over-valued.
Her campaign to assist elderly Nashuans with abatements and her subsequent expulsion from City Hall are the most recent developments in a saga that goes back to December 2013, when Ortolano and her husband Michael purchased their home at 41 Berkley St.
Soon after their closing, the Assessing Department raised its valuation of the property from $469,800 to $699,400, causing their property taxes to rise from $11,040 to $16,820.
Ortolano began researching the practices of Nashua assessors, spending several days a week in the assessing office examining hundreds of individual property tax cards, abatement decisions and other documents.
In the fall of 2018, she took her concerns to Mayor Jim Donchess and spoke at the Board of Aldermen meeting. After getting little traction there, she went public and the New Hampshire Union Leader published the first of what would be many articles on Ortolano’s efforts in October.
In her view, the assessing department was taking short cuts in the assessment process and increasing the assessment on properties that had recently sold, based on the sales price — an undesirable practice known as “sales chasing” in the assessing profession. Over time, she also raised concerns about the conduct of one appraiser in particular and unexplained reductions to property assessments of certain well-connected individuals.
In the months that followed her disclosures, the city ordered a management audit of its Assessing Department, replaced its long-time chief assessor, retained a lawyer to investigate the assessor identified by Ortolano, and was subject to a review by the state Board of Land and Tax Appeals.
The BLTA ordered the city to conduct a “full list and measure” revaluation before 2022, which involves costly on-site inspection and appraisal of every property in the city, rather than adjustments made by paperwork estimates. That revaluation is now under way, although impeded by the inability of appraisers to assess interior spaces because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The credibility of the city’s Assessing Department is particularly critical at a time when property owners will soon see appraisals that bring assessments for tax purposes closer to true market value. The potential for sticker shock is high. The worst scenario for the city is to have its Assessing Department operating under a cloud of suspicion amid a citywide revaluation.
“As a result of her activism, Nashua will be a better place with a fairer and more professional Assessing Department than it had when she began her inquiry,” according to Ortolano’s attorney, Richard Lehmann. “Rather than thanking her for helping the city government better serve its residents, elements within the city have stonewalled her efforts to obtain additional public information, publicly attacked her and publicly blamed her for costing the city time and money responding to her inquiries.”
As far as the mayor and other city officials are concerned, Ortolano has harassed staff, created a threatening environment and made unreasonably broad right-to-know requests that have cost the taxpayers in excess of $100,000. They had a Nashua state rep file an unsuccessful bill in 2020 that would have made it harder for people like Ortolano to file such requests, and they successfully opposed her nomination to the statewide Assessing Standards Board.
Ortolano may have caused some discomfort and additional expense at City Hall, but she has done a great service to Nashua at a personal cost of more than $120,000 and the stress of becoming persona non grata among city officials and to some extent local police.
Her Facebook posts on the Nashua Scoop page are filled with thank-you messages and compliments from people who’ve benefited from her effort to expand awareness about the abatement process and access for senior citizens.
She maintains a website, good-gov.org, that is loaded with data to help property owners, including a spreadsheet of all the 2020 qualified sales sorted by street name to support abatement requests.
“To me, there is so much enjoyment in doing the grassroots piece and helping property owners understand their assessment,” says Ortolano. “I get little messages on Facebook three or four times a day saying, ‘Can you check my property and is it fair.’”