Viewpoints: Regular property assessments key to tax fairness

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Special to The News

Property reassessments, in the words of a fellow public servant, are “like going to the dentist.” We don’t like them, but like the dentist, they serve a good purpose.

In and of themselves, reassessments do not necessarily mean higher taxes. The professionals say that after a reassessment, on average, one-third see decreases in their tax bills, one-third stay the same and one-third see an increase. The assessment process results in a change of how the total tax levy is distributed over a municipality; it does not mean more or less in revenue is collected by a municipality.

Back in 2018, the Town of Cheektowaga had a plan to reassess five neighborhoods in order to maintain our equalization rate. That plan was put aside in place of a plan to assess the entire town in 2020. I was supportive of the new plan.

n April, the Cheektowaga Council unanimously voted to carry out townwide reassessments of residential and commercial properties, in keeping with the plan. Five months later, in September, the Council voted 4-2 to end that reassessment plan. I was in the minority on that vote.

I voted against cancellation of the reassessment contract then because I felt reassessing the entire town at one time was crucial to ensure tax fairness and equity. More, among those who were bearing more than their fair share of the property tax burden, many lived in areas that the U.S. census showed as the town’s lower-income areas. Without reassessment, the value of STAR and veterans exemptions to property taxes would have eroded, leading school tax bills to increase regardless.

In April, I was voting for carrying out the plan, as well as for fair and equitable taxation. I voted for the same on Sept. 24. Last month, I joined a majority of my colleagues in a 4-2 vote to extend the life of the original contract. The Oct. 22 resolution will allow a townwide reassessment to take place.

According to the tax foundation, 35 U.S. states require reassessments at least once every five years. Ten require annual reassessments, while 25 others require property assessments be done every other year, every three years or they have some other state-specific provisions.

Ohio and Tennessee require reassessments at least every six years. Connecticut and Rhode Island require reassessments every 10. Vermont law triggers property reassessments whenever the equalization rate in a township drops below 80%. New York is the relative exception, being one of only seven states with no statutory requirement for regular, cyclical reassessments.

Buffalo has just completed a citywide reassessment. The towns of Amherst and Lancaster are on track to complete townwide reassessments over the next few years. Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa recognizes the need of regular reassessments and has told me he intends to keep the Amherst equalization rate as close to 100% as possible. Maintaining a high equalization rate requires periodic reassessment, and that reassessing results in a more fair and equitable distribution of the total property tax levy.

Residential and commercial properties are assets. They are subjected to the same tax rates per thousand dollars of taxable value. A primary source of wealth-building for working people is the growing value in their home. It is imperative that local taxing authorities do their best to accurately assess each property to reflect market values and levy a fair portion of the total property tax due on each property, in order to uphold a level playing field and fairness for all those working hard to build wealth for themselves and their families.

Eleven years ago, the idea of a centralizing property assessments at the county level was floated. That common-sense change was promoted as a money-saver and as a measure to eliminate the town-by-town approach that results in wildly different equalization rates and tax rates.

Another way to address the issues associated with our property assessment approach would be to look at what other states are doing and change state law to require regular assessments. Thirty-five states have such laws in place already. New York joining them would result in better public policy.

Either approach to ensure more consistent tax fairness and equity would be an improvement over the current situation.

Brian Nowak is deputy supervisor in the Town of Cheektowaga.

Published in The Buffalo News, Nov. 2, 2019

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