County property taxes will be going up in some places

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When Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz rolled out his 2022 budget proposal last
year, he framed as a key accomplishment his reduction of the county property tax rate to
the “lowest property tax rate in modern history for Erie County.”
That does not mean, however, that everybody’s county property taxes went down this
year.

In 16 towns and cities this year, the county tax rate actually went up. The towns of
Orchard Park and Hamburg, for instance, are seeing their property taxes rise by nearly
6%.

Meanwhile, the towns of Grand Island and Cheektowaga are seeing property tax
reductions of 17% and 19%, respectively. Buffalo city residents are seeing their county
tax rates drop marginally, by less than 1%.

Overall, county tax rates fell in 12 of 28 communities.

How can this be, when Poloncarz’s budget supposedly cuts the county’s property tax rate
to the lowest level since at least 1960?

It’s complicated. As your bill shows up in the mail, here’s what you need to know about how much you’re paying in county property taxes and
why.

Property taxes 101

The property tax rate roughly refers to the amount of taxes the county collects for every
$1,000 your property is officially worth. So, if you own a home assessed at $100,000,
and the tax rate is $2, then you’ll pay an annual property tax bill of $200.

If the property tax rate goes down, and the value of your home stays the same or loses
value, then your tax bill will go down. But if your home increases in value – which is
often the case – then even if the tax rate goes down, you can still wind up paying more
out of pocket.

That makes tax rate numbers misleading. Erie County tax rates have either stayed the
same or fallen nearly every year since 2009. Yet, the county collects about $98 million
more in property taxes now than it collected back then.

The fact is, county government spending has risen every year, under both Democratic
and Republican leadership, and county tax collections have risen along with it.
That’s why the better measure of whether your property tax bill will rise is the “tax levy,”
the total amount of taxes collected by a government.

Erie County will collect $9 million more in property taxes this year than it did last year,
as part of the 2022 tax levy, an increase of 3%. That’s a bigger increase than last year, but
less than it was in 2020.

The political fight

The definition of “lowering county taxes” has been woven into the political budget fight
in the Erie County Legislature over the past two years.
Republican-supported legislators have publicly pushed to lower the overall tax levy and
provide “meaningful property tax relief” to residents in light of the record levels of
outside federal funding the county has received. The year-end county surplus for 2021 is
also currently projected to be $150 million, which is enormous, compared with previous
years.

Democratic legislators, meanwhile, have supported Poloncarz’s budgets, which call for
tax rate reductions, but overall increases in the tax levy to fund various countywide and
city priorities during a period of great economic uncertainty and unknowns regarding
future federal support.

The inability for both sides to reach a compromise on budget reductions has contributed
to an overall souring of relations between the two parties.

Assessments vs. true value

When the 2022 budget was approved by the County Legislature, the administration said
the county’s tax rate would fall from $4.42 to $4.33. But this is a reference to the “full
value tax rate,” the rate the county would charge property owners across the board,
assuming all homes are assessed at what they are really worth.

In reality, few properties have assessments that match their true market values.
Many local governments do not reassess their residents’ properties on a regular basis
because it is costly, time-consuming and politically unpopular. In most communities,
homes are worth more, and sell for more, than what they are assessed at by their city or
town.
So, the state tries to close that gap with an “equalization rate” that is dropped into the tax
rate calculations for every community every year.

When leaders of thriving communities refuse to reassess property values for a long time,
a disparity grows between a property’s government- assessed value and its true market
value. In such communities, tax rate changes become a meaningless indicator of how
much more or less a taxpayer must fork over in property taxes because of the
equalization rate.

For instance, the Town of Elma has gone so long without reassessing its properties that it
has an equalization of 3.61 – as in, the state considers homes in Elma to be assessed at
only 3.61% of their true worth. For that reason, Elma’s county tax rate is $112.44 this
year. That remains the highest tax rate, by far, of any Erie County community.

While that sounds bad, in reality, Elma’s county property tax bills fell slightly this year.
The state considers Elma’s overall property values to be relatively unchanged, and
because Elma’s state equalization rate changed very little, the decline in the county’s tax
rate actually benefits those residents.

To complicate matters further, the county also tacks additional charges onto tax bills for
certain community college fees and Erie County Board of Elections operations.
Regardless, critics of Poloncarz’s spending plans in recent years have complained that
residents are overtaxed. But Poloncarz and his supporters have pointed out that even with
the tax levy increases, county taxes remain lower, overall, than many city, town and

school tax bills. Poloncarz’s budgets have also consistently remained under the state-
imposed tax cap, and the county’s credit ratings have been solid.

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