Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Hard Look at Assessments in Stuyvesant

This was originally published as a My View piece in the Register Star.

"Take a hard look at system before trying to fix it", October 8, 2009

by Martin Roby, Stuyvesant

After reading New York State Senator Steve Saland’s recent My View, I am convinced he does not understand the property tax issues or the meaning of the word reform. Raising state taxes and passing it out like candy to pay property taxes is not going to reform anything.

Property taxes are high because our towns and county spend too much. Each year, spending increases. The town of Stuyvesant just spent over $4,000 to print a town calendar! These towns maintain frivolous spending by inflating assessments.

The assessment process is complicated and vague. The average property owner has little ammunition to grieve an assessment. There is too little oversight, too much room for error and too much leeway to favor the well-connected, increasing the burden on others. In the end you end up having to pay an attorney to sue your town, who hires an attorney using your tax dollars.

Towns are divided into arbitrary “real estate neighborhoods” that determine whether nearby comparable sales or features affect their property values. By changing the neighborhood boundaries, it is possible to include or exclude a sale from the comparables to achieve a desired result. In Stuyvesant, some neighborhoods pay “view taxes” through a higher value placed on their lot. But not all! Much of Sharptown Road has a view of rolling hills, farms and preserved land, with breathtaking views of the Catskills and Berkshires. Yet they don’t pay a “view tax” like the residents at Stuyvesant Landing, who pay for a view of the river. Is it just coincidence that our town supervisor and other well-connected people live on Sharptown Road? I invite anyone to drive through these two areas and explain how the system is fair.

Another way to manipulate assessments is the property description. A few years ago, my assessment jumped suddenly without explanation, and I became determined to understand the assessment system. I discovered that my property inventory included a finished basement. They did not notify me or tell me why my assessment increased, but suddenly I was over-assessed for an improvement that I did not have. It took months of repeated freedom of information (FOIL) requests to gain an understanding of the inventory system. How many are paying taxes on bogus features or improvements and don’t even know it? How many well-connected people are not paying for features that they do have?

Land description also affects assessed value. A land-locked Stuyvesant resident with a pond was being taxed $40,000 for a water front lot, while other well connected people were assessed at $8,000 per acre for riverfront property with boat access. Some are charged $30,000+ for a primary lot, while others pay only a few thousand for “tillable land” regardless of how buildable it is.

Property inventory cards break out a parcel’s assessment so you can see your features, land and property descriptions, and comparables. They allow you to compare features and their values with other properties. In Stuyvesant, getting inventory cards requires knowledge that they exist, FOIL requests with precise wording, several hundred dollars in fees and strong legs to jump through hoops. My requests for electronic data were denied because, according to Supervisor Bertram, the town does not have the ability to export the records, even though I provided a link to the instruction manual online. How can the town analyze the data if they can’t run reports? How do they know that GAR did a good job for the $60,000 they were paid to reassess?

Next, I requested paper inventory cards and paid a large fee, but the property value data was zeroed out. After rewording my request to ensure I would receive complete data records, I scanned and posted the cards on my web site to help others understand how the system works (http://www.eichybush.com). I would like to be able to do the same for the rest of the town, without incurring fees for FOIL requests.

We won’t have reform unless we look hard at the system. We need transparency and oversight. Towns can have a vested interest in keeping public information about properties and the process to a minimum so they can keep assessed values high. If they are prone to favor certain people, the opportunity is there. Making inventory information more accessible will allow residents to understand their assessments and compare their property with others. I don’t think it is too much to ask.

I have discussed these issues with Lee Jamison, candidate for Stuyvesant town supervisor. Ms. Jamison agreed that transparency is essential. If she is elected, she will allow residents access to this public information. I am encouraged by Ms. Jamison’s support of real property tax reform.

Then Sen. Saland won’t need to raise taxes on the rest of the state to pay for Stuyvesant’s calendar.