Buffalo News Editorial: Guaranteeing unfairness in Cheektowaga

Cheektowaga residents probably realize that they don’t get off scot-free when town officials cancel a reassessment.

That’s what town leaders did, claiming they were worried about the impact on low-income and senior citizen residents. But to property owners who understand that long periods between reassessments creates imbalance and inequity, the decision is likely to smack more of election-year politics than of concern for taxpayers.

It’s a charade. Residents should demand accurate assessment, which can be achieved only through regular updates. That’s the only way to ensure that everyone pays his fair share and, in particular, that low-income residents aren’t overtaxed.

But that is not what is happening.

What would have been the first reassessment since 2014 has been canceled. The town would have had to pay the firm of Emminger, Newton, Pigeon & Magyar $590,000 in installments over four years, starting with $310,000 this year, $80,000 each of next couple of years and $120,000 in the last year. It’s not inexpensive, but no one ever said fairness was cheap.

In late September, only five months after the project was approved, the Town Board approved 4-2 to nullify the contract. Supervisor Diane Benczkowski and Council Members Christine Adamczyk, Linda Hammer and Brian Pilarski explained the decision by saying it would help senior citizens and low-income families. It won’t.

The reasoning starts to become suspect when considering that Benczkowski, Adamczyk and Hammer are running for re-election. Campaigning on a platform for the people carries a nice sound bite until the people start to realize they may be getting a raw deal.

The purpose of reassessment is simply to distribute the tax burden fairly among property owners. Assessors do not raise taxes. That’s the purview of Town Board members and the supervisor; they decide the amount of money that needs to be raised. A reassessment does nothing to change the size of the tax levy.

What it does do is ensure that, as property values change over time, some property owners – generally those in smaller homes – don’t shoulder more than their fair share of taxes. Here’s how that works:

Lower-cost properties generally gain value more slowly than more expensive ones. So, when property assessments are not kept up to date, taxpayers who own smaller homes – usually people with lower incomes – end up subsidizing the taxes of wealthier residents, whose properties are worth more than their out-of-date assessments show.

The state told the town to conduct the reassessment, according to Benczkowski, who then noted other towns that have not undergone a reassessment – Elma since the 1960s and Lancaster since 2009. West Seneca underwent reassessment in 1986; Hamburg in the 1990s and the Town of Tonawanda in the late 1980s.

While it may be true – and also unfair to taxpayers of those towns – it shouldn’t matter what other towns have and haven’t done. Backing out of the reassessment is not in the town residents’ best interest. Kenneth L. Young, president of Town Park Community Association, understands that; he supported reassessment. Same goes for other Town Board members who criticized the move: Deputy Supervisor Brian Nowak and Councilman Gerald Kaminski, who is also running for re-election this year.

Kaminski noted that many neighborhoods in North Cheektowaga have been assessed twice in the last four years and others, not at all. Such an imbalance could have been addressed in the now-canceled reassessment. It’s a disservice.

Published in The Buffalo News, Oct. 11, 2019

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