MILTON TOWN RECORDS and interviews with local officials are calling into question the accuracy of a Boston Globe story suggesting embattled state Sen. Brian Joyce shortchanged the municipality on property taxes.
Last week, the Boston Globe ran a page one story under the all-caps headline “SENATOR’S RENOVATIONS A SURPRISE TO ASSESSORS.” The story, accompanied by a picture of the six-bedroom Joyce family home in Milton, charged the longtime Democratic senator with doing upgrades on the home without obtaining the necessary permits. As a result, the story said, the assessed value of the home and its square footage have been understated, resulting in the town losing out on tax payments of as much as $16,000 a year.
Yet the town’s chief assessor said on Monday that all the necessary permits for work on the home were pulled. He also said the square footage isn’t understated using standard assessing practices, and pointed out that the assessed value and market value of a home are two different things. Robert Bushway, the chief assessor, said after reading the Globe story and reviewing the available records he isn’t concerned about the town being shortchanged.
“I don’t think there’s as much discrepancy as first thought,” said Bushway. “After talking to the building inspector, it sounds like they determined all the permits that were needed were pulled. Some of the permits pulled 13 years ago were a little more ambiguous than they are nowadays.”
Milton town officials will discuss the issue at two separate meetings Tuesday night, with a report from the town administrator expected to chronicle the history of the house’s permitting process. The Board of Assessors will meet to discuss the home evaluation process and later the Board of Selectmen will have a public hearing on the issue.
A series of Globe stories over the last two years about Joyce’s business and political practices have led to state and federal investigations. The federal investigation reportedly is focused on whether he used his position as a senator to benefit his legal clients. Negative publicity resulting from the investigations has cost Joyce his position in the Senate’s Democratic leadership and prompted him to withdraw from politics at the end of this term. He has also told friends that his law practice is in a shambles.
Joyce declined comment on the Globe story. His son Michael, however, posted all of the home’s permits on Facebook. “Attached are the very permits which the Boston Globe says do not exist,” Michael Joyce wrote in his post. “These permits have been in the public record for years, and were readily available to the Globe. Once again, the Boston Globe willfully ignores the facts in order to fabricate a scandal.”
Much of the confusion arises from a comparison of records on the home available at Milton Town Hall and a marketing brochure prepared by Coldwell Banker at Joyce’s request for possible buyers.
According to the Globe story, written by investigative reporter Andrea Estes, who has run numerous critical stories about Joyce’s political practices and his business dealings over the past two years, the house is listed by the realtor as a 6,444-square-foot, six-bedroom home on four floors while town records indicate it is a 3,854-square foot house with five bedrooms on two floors.
“The brochure for the sale of his grand Colonial revival house suggests that he has done substantial renovations, adding more than 2,500 square feet of living space, apparently without the required town permits,” the story said.
The story said the asking price for the home is $1.75 million while it is assessed for $867,500. The story suggested the discrepancy has led to Joyce not paying taxes on a much more valuable home, estimating the difference at as much as $16,000 for this year alone.
Bushway said realtors can take license when writing up a listing while assessors operate under different standards. “One is a marketing document, the other is an official record,” said Bushway, noting that realtors often set the market value of a home well above the assessed value.
The house underwent a massive renovation that began in 2002 and continued in 2003 (when Joyce and his wife purchased the home) and 2004. After being moved from another location on a larger property that was subsequently developed, the house had to have a foundation built and many upgrades made to the structure as well as the electrical and plumbing systems.
A permit was taken out in September 2002 by the developer/owner of the home for renovations totaling $110,000, a significant investment at that time. Joyce bought the house in February 2003, less than five months later, and officials in the town Inspectional Services department said he was required to continue working with the contractor who pulled the permit and was doing the work.
Estes referred questions to Globe editor Scott Allen, who said the paper stands by the story. He said the newspaper has proof there were renovations made without the town’s knowledge. He also pointed out that Joyce refused to talk to Estes.
“He had every opportunity to give her an explanation, but he chose not to,” said Allen. “The assessors have not been in the house since 2002…. The house has clearly been renovated since 2002. We’re not wrong.”
Bushway said town assessors have not been in the Joyce home since 2002, although they made two unannounced visits to the home in 2005 and 2014 and were unable to gain access because no one was home. He said the assessors took measurements outside and looked inside the windows. After the Globe story appeared, Bushway said, he asked Joyce if assessors could make a visit to inspect the inside of the house and Joyce declined.
Allen cited the disparity between the marketing brochure and assessor records as an indication that the town doesn’t have all the information. But Bushway, the assessor, said the square footage discrepancy is easily explained. While the 1,856 square-foot basement is listed on the assessing records, Bushway said common assessing practice is not to include “below grade” space such as basements as part of the assessed living areas, though finished basements can add value on an assessment.
“I just don’t know for certain when that basement was finished, but that large permit pulled in 2002 inferred to me that was most likely when the basement was finished,” said Bushway, who has been the chief assessor in Milton for just two years but has been an assessor elsewhere for more than 25 years.
He also said assessors only count attic space that they deem to be livable. In Joyce’s house, assessors determined there is 394 square feet of livable, finished space in the 1,574-square-foot attic. Adding the basement and uncounted attic space together accounts for 3,000 of the 6,444 square feet the Globe said is listed in the marketing brochure.
Allen dismissed Bushway’s calculation, saying, “I don’t know that’s normal [assessing] practice.” A review of assessor records of several similar houses in the area indicated the same calculations were used with them.
William E. Bennett, an elected member of the three-person Milton Board of Assessors, was quoted in the Globe story as saying he was concerned about the allegations raised by the newspaper. “I would be very concerned if any resident did not apply for the proper permits when doing renovations that would have an effect on the value of their property,” Bennett told the Globe. “But it’s even more disheartening if one of our elected officials ignored the town’s laws.”
Bennett is an elected member of the Milton Republican Town Committee, which has been very critical on social media of Joyce, a member of the Senate’s Democratic leadership until earlier this year. Allen said he wasn’t aware of Bennett’s political affiliation, but suggested it was irrelevant. “What difference does it make?” he asked. “We didn’t identify Joyce as a Democrat.”