Rising home prices mean your tax assessment is going up. Or not. Get ready for CNY’s wild property tax season

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Lysander residents caught off guard with staggering tax assessment increases

Syracuse, N.Y. – Homeowners in much of Onondaga County are getting a shock this spring. Their property tax assessments are shooting up $20,000, or $30,000, or $50,000. Or more.

Residents of Lysander and Van Buren have already received letters that their assessments went up by an average of 14%. Other towns will send similar notices later this month. Assessors are bracing for the backlash.

Nobody has seen anything like it. The increases, driven by soaring home prices, have rattled homeowners. Homes are already heavily taxed in New York, and many owners fear that rising assessments will mean even higher taxes.

Strangely, the drama won’t hit every town.

Some local towns have opted not to adjust assessments to match rising home prices this year. Property owners in towns like Clay, the county’s largest, will get no increase unless they made physical improvements to the house.

The inconsistency among towns is stark.

Residents of Misty Cove Circle, a street near the Oswego River in Lysander, are getting increases ranging from $37,000 to $64,000. Across the river, homeowners on Gaskin Road in Clay will get zero increase.

Does that mean taxes will go up for Lysander residents but not for Clay residents? No, not necessarily. Does it mean that New York’s property assessments are wildly uneven and needlessly mysterious? Yes.

The state’s crazy quilt of assessment practices makes it harder for taxpayers to understand their bills. The inconsistency makes it hard to compare your house’s bill to what others pay – and to compare your assessment to the marketplace. And it leaves the door open to inequity. When errors or unfairness creep in, it’s usually up to homeowners to figure it out and complain.

The Central New York housing market went on a wild, unprecedented run last year, forcing assessors to scramble if they wanted to keep up. The median home price jumped 15.9% in the year ending June 2021, the relevant period for 2022 assessments, on top of a 7.7% increase the previous year, according to the Greater Syracuse Association of Realtors.

The pace was breathtaking. The average house spent just three weeks on the market and sold for 3% above the asking price as of last June, the association reported.

John DeJohn fights tax assessment

Dick DeJohn, 82, and his wife have lived in the Seneca Knolls subdivision of Van Buren since 1977. They are worried that the $14,000 increase in their property assessment could lead to higher taxes. They received a $10,000 assessment increase last year. N. Scott Trimble | strimble@syracuse.com

All that activity is putting a spotlight on the hodgepodge of assessment practices that lay the groundwork for property taxes. It may bring greater urgency to grievance reviews in some towns. And there likely will be extra focus on school budget votes and other decisions that determine property taxes.

Assessors don’t set tax rates. Their job is to distribute the burden fairly. But sometimes assessment changes can directly affect what people pay.

In the city of Syracuse, for example, assessment changes made this year will cost some homeowners hundreds of dollars in higher taxes. That’s because the city revalues only a fraction of its properties each year while leaving most assessments unchanged. That shifts the balance of how much people pay.

City officials change assessments in January, four months ahead of the towns.

On some streets in the Eastwood neighborhood, where the city focused much of its attention this year, assessment increases averaged nearly 20%. At current tax rates, that means increases of $300 to $500 a year for many of the owners, even more for others. The new assessments are certain to raise their taxes because 89% of residential properties in the city saw no change in assessment.

Matthew Oja, commissioner of assessment, said he was surprised that more people did not challenge their assessment increases during the February grievance hearings.

“I hope people opened their mail and saw those notices in January,’’ he said.

‘Kind of a shock’

If you get a letter from a town assessor this month, don’t ignore it. You’re probably getting a bump, and it could be big.

If you think your assessment is out of line, contact the assessor. Theresa Golden, the assessor for Lysander and Van Buren, sent out notices early to allow several weeks for informal consultations with hundreds of homeowners. She’s been meeting with people nonstop every 15 minutes, by phone or in person.

If an informal discussion leaves you unsatisfied, you can contest the assessment at a grievance hearing. Towns hold those in late May or early June.

Just remember, the grievance will be decided based on your home’s value compared with similar homes. You won’t get far arguing that your taxes are too high. Assessors don’t set the tax rates.

Lysander resident Deborah Snyder, a real estate agent, said she and her husband, John, built their home on rural Kibby Road 30 years ago. They haven’t done anything to upgrade the house except routine maintenance. Their assessment went up $30,000 this year after a hike of $24,000 last year – a total of 27% over two years.

“It just seems a little unreasonable,’’ she said. “Just kind of a shock.”

The letter Snyder and other town residents received noted that assessment increases don’t necessarily mean that taxes will rise. In theory, that’s true.

Lysander residents caught off guard with staggering tax assessment increases

Howard and Sandra Seabrook, who run Purpose Farm from their residence in Lysander, say they plan to grieve the $35,600 increase in their property assessment this year. Purpose Farm provides opportunities for at-risk children and youths to work with rescued animals. N. Scott Trimble | strimble@syracuse.com

All but nine of the more than 12,000 residential properties in Lysander and Van Buren got assessment increases. Most were right around 14%, although some rural properties and other atypical parcels varied. So most people’s slice of the tax pie should remain roughly the same.

In theory, if the town, county and school district raise the same amount of taxes off a larger base, their rates will go down and bills will remain unchanged.

Snyder is dubious, however, based on experience. Her $24,000 assessment increase last year resulted in $455 more in taxes, even though the town, county and school district all cut their rates slightly. Most of the increase was on her school tax bill.

That will be something to keep an eye on this year. Elected officials like to say they cut property taxes when they reduce the tax rate. But if higher assessments allow them to collect and spend more money — even with a slightly lower rate per $1,000 of assessment — tax bills can still go up.

The potential for property taxes to rise worries Van Buren resident Richard DeJohn, 82, who has owned his house in the Seneca Knolls subdivision for 45 years. He and his wife rely mainly on Social Security for income. DeJohn said he wonders how much longer they can afford to keep their house if taxes rise along with the assessment.

“It’s just unreasonable, especially after coming off a pandemic, which we still have,’’ he said. “Prices on everything else are going up almost double.”

Political suicide?

Unlike most states, New York does not insist that municipalities reassess every property periodically. Decisions are left to municipalities and local practices vary widely. Some towns, including Clay, haven’t been thoroughly revalued in decades.

Lysander residents caught off guard by high tax assessments

Why not? “The Town Board believes that the town should provide service, not aggravate taxpayers,’’ says a document provided to residents by the Clay assessment department.

This year, it was tempting for politicians to take a pass on reassessment. Sensing that taxpayers were already distressed by inflation and the lingering pandemic, some town boards decided to skip assessment increases to keep the peace, said Warren Wheeler, executive director of the New York State Assessors Association.

“Some municipalities take the standpoint, well, this is a very bad year to do so. It’s politically bad, you know, it’s political suicide,’’ Wheeler said.

Denise Trudell, assessor for the town of Salina, said her board members were nervous about raising assessments because some other towns don’t. Trudell said she persuaded them, pointing out that some Salina neighborhoods have increased only 2% in value this year while others have zoomed up 15%. To leave the assessments unchanged would ignore those differences, she said.

“That’s very unfair to the individuals in the town,’’ she said.

Lysander residents caught off guard with staggering tax assessment increases

Political suicide or not, keeping assessments at 100% of market value is the right way to go, said John Yinger, professor of public administration and economics at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

When house prices change but assessments stay flat, the home values that people are taxed against become more and more divorced from market value. The numbers become harder for homeowners to understand and grieve. Some houses grow in value faster than others, increasing inequity.

“A fair property tax system requires 100% assessment,’’ Yinger said. “Many states require it. New York obviously does not. Assessors who aim for 100% are doing the right thing.”

Trending the market

Going into this year, eight of Onondaga County’s 19 towns kept assessments at 100% of market value. In the other 11 towns and Syracuse, assessments are some share of market value. The range is broad, from 1.86% of true market value in Otisco to 96% in Cicero.

Each year that home prices rise, those towns get further out of whack with the market. And each year state tax officials devise formulas called “equalization rates” to compensate for the different assessment levels between municipalities. Those formulas are supposed to level out certain tax burdens, such as school and county taxes, shared by residents of different towns.

If your town’s equalization rate falls 10% this year, as expected this year in the town of Clay, that’s the equivalent of raising everyone’s assessment 10%.

Experts say assessments that match current market values are the most accurate and the easiest to understand. Municipalities that don’t keep assessments at 100% must at least make sure that everyone’s assessment falls short of full value by the same percentage. That way, each owner would still pay the correct share of taxes.

Even though Clay’s assessments are less than 4% of market prices, they have been tested and deemed equitable by state officials, assessor Rob Bick said. State law requires only that all assessments within a municipality must be at a “uniform percentage of value.”

Clay hasn’t done a townwide revaluation in about 60 years and probably won’t in the foreseeable future, Bick said.

“I think you’d see mass hysteria,’’ he said. “You’d see tar, feathers and pitchforks. And you’d see all the elected officials get unelected.’’

In towns committed to 100% assessment, many of the values are set each year by “trending.’’ Assessors group neighborhood properties that are similar in age and style, review sales data and other factors, and assign a uniform assessment change to all the properties.

Golden said she did individual appraisals at rural properties, where there is more variation from house to house, but used trending for the bulk of this year’s assessments in Lysander and Van Buren.

“I used to have a heart attack trending 5% (increases),’’ she said. “And this year, I trended whole neighborhoods by 14.’’

Trending doesn’t work as well in Syracuse city neighborhoods, where housing styles and quality are less consistent from block to block.

In Salina, Trudell normally reappraises one-sixth of the town properties each year and uses trending to set values for the rest. Some neighborhoods this year will see their fourth assessment increase in four years.

It has required a “huge” effort to keep up with rising home prices, Trudell said. It’s not clear when it will end.

Golden said she had hoped housing prices would settle down so that next year’s assessment could do the same. But she recently learned of a Lysander house that just sold for $80,000 more than its brand-new assessment.

“Which is not encouraging to me,’’ she said.

Published by Syracuse.com

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