Saturday, October 4, 2008

B.A.R. Brawl

Monthly town board meetings in Richmondville are increasingly becoming like bar-room brawls, with bitter and angry residents confused and throwing punches at anyone dumb enough to stand in the way. The public’s animosity over the ongoing tax assessment controversy in Richmondville has recently seemed to shift from the largely absentee assessor Matt Richardson to the members of the Board of Assessment Review who, critics allege, grossly overstepped their boundaries by improperly lowering the property assessments of a select few. But exactly who is really responsible and what are they responsible for?

Part of the reason for the confusion is New York State’s system of local government. In New York there are numerous tax-levying entities (i.e. school districts, counties, etc.), many of which encompass multiple tax-assessing jurisdictions (i.e. towns, villages and cities). Since all of these tax-assessing entities assess their own property, pretty much all of these communities assess at a different level of market value, creating what appear to be vast discrepancies in assessed value throughout the state. Now, if taxes were levied only in the same community in which they were assessed, the assessment level would matter very little, as in the end the tax rate would be based on the level of services demanded and the budget adopted by the community’s elected officials. Higher assessments would mean a lower tax rate and lower assessments would translate into a higher tax levy.

Unfortunately, towns like Richmondville are not only taxed by the town government. Richmondville is also subject to Schoharie County and Cobleskill-Richmondville School District tax levies. Here’s where the situation gets a bit more complicated, and actually quite understandably provocative for Richmondville taxpayers. In fact, this is why there is so much confusion as to who is paying what.

Over the past several years, the town of Richmondville has seen assessed property values rise, in some cases slowly, in other cases, quite rapidly. Within the town this may have resulted in an uneven distribution of the tax burden with some residents being forced to pay what is obviously more than their fair share, and others less. However, others fear that the assessment problem has also resulted in a much larger shifting of the tax burden onto the town of Richmondville at the county and school district levels.

Critics claim that these rises in assessed value have translated into a significant increase in the percentage of the county budget and the CRCS school district that Richmondville is paying into. This increase could be as much as $500,000 a year coming from Richmondville taxpayers!
Now, if school boards and county governments applied their tax levies evenly across the board, this would result in a substantially unfair and uneven distribution of the tax burden. However, this is not the case. School boards and county governments use the ORPS-determined equalization rate to apportion property tax levies across the multiple assessing jurisdictions within their own boundaries. The purpose of this is to prevent unfairness between different jurisdictions that have different levels of assessment.

All things being unequal

The equalization rate is the ratio of total assessed value to total market value in a given municipality. Currently, Richmondville’s equalization rate according to ORPS is 100%. Meanwhile, the Town of Cobleskill, has an equalization rate of 73 percent. Summit’s equalization rate is only 53%! At this point no other town in Schoharie County comes close to having a 100% equalization rate. But pointing to a higher equalization rate than neighboring municipalities can be misleading.

Imagine both Summit and Richmondville (both part of the CRCS school district) were paying the same school tax rate. That would mean Richmondville was paying twice as much as their neighbors in Summit! This would be truly outrageous. However, the equalization rate is used to prevent just that scenario. The equalization rate is used by school districts and county governments to apportion property taxes across various municipal jurisdictions according to their respective level of assessment. This is supposed to prevent one town or village from carrying an excessive tax burden. Now if this isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, the appropriate parties to be held accountable would be your school board and county government. There’s probably very little your assessor or B.A.R. can do.

Abuse of power?

In an entirely different assessment controversy, one more particular to Richmondville itself, critics also contend that the Board of Assessment Review overstepped its bounds by drastically lowering the assessments of some of the town’s highest assessed properties. According to critics, the B.A.R. has acted in ways that go well beyond its authority and that have actually unfairly lowered some people’s assessments. Critics like John Primeau allege that the B.A.R. in many cases simply rolled assessments back to 2007 and applied a smaller 2% increase. He also claims that some of the highest assessed properties were lowered dramatically, thus shifting the tax burden within the town itself.

The question here is whether the Board of Assessment Review, which is supposed to apply strict and consistent standards for reviewing and potentially altering property tax assessments, has simply applied a general formula as the basis for making changes to assessments. If so, the B.A.R. would have grossly and illegally exceeded its authority. It is an administrative body, which in theory means it is only applying the law, in this case, the property assessments. If there has been an error and the property owner can prove an excessive or unequal assessment, the board can lower that person’s assessment accordingly. Generally applied increases or decreases are legislative actions and therefore completely inappropriate, if in fact that’s what was done.

Primeau also alleges that the B.A.R. dramatically lowered assessments on a handful of highly-assessed properties. He references several cases in which assessed values were decreased anywhere from $75,000 to over $100,000. Richmondville taxpayers have a right to know and a duty to find out what standards were used to decrease these assessments by such amounts. There is also the possibility of conflicts of interest, as Horst Fierek’s property (Fierek is a member of the B.A.R.) received one of the largest decreases in assessed value. Certainly I’m not accusing anyone of improper actions, but the potential for conflict is strong enough to justify an in-depth look, possibly a state audit, at who is receiving lowered assessments and on what basis.

Others allege that the B.A.R. lowered the assessment of Richmondville Power and Light, Richmondville’s municipally-owned power company, by nearly a million dollars over the past several years. John Primeau claims that a B.A.R. member, when questioned about the RPL decrease, told him it was done to keep their rates low. Aside from the fact that RPL does not serve each taxpayer in the town of Richmondville, each of whom would be forced to shoulder the extra tax burden, this is obviously not what the B.A.R. is supposed to do.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix to these problems. If indeed, Richmondville has a runaway B.A.R. that is not following the rules for altering assessments, I believe it falls to the state to audit the B.A.R.’s actions. Over the long term, it may be in the town’s interest to switch to a county-based property assessment system. But on that issue I would advise caution (see next post) and recommend county-based assessment only as a last resort.

Additionally, the air needs to be cleared as to Richmondville’s equalization rate compared to other towns. Aligning Richmondville’s equalization rate with that of Cobleskill or any other town in the county, would not have any real effect on the apportionment of school or county taxes or Richmondville’s tax burden. But if you feel Richmondville is being unfairly stuck with a higher percentage of the school or county property tax, feel free to take it up with the school board or the county.

The appropriate way to address any alleged malfeasance is to call for more oversight and an engaged (and informed) citizenry demanding rational explanations for the activities of B.A.R. members.

However, let’s not forget the bottom line. School and county taxes are going up due to rising fuel costs, salary increases and rising insurance costs. Local property assessments have little to do with this. However, when people see that their tax bills are rising in concert with their property assessments, it’s natural to want to point the finger of blame toward the assessor. Combine this with a tax assessor who has seemingly been beyond reach, and you begin to see why people want to blame everything on the assessments.

This doesn’t mean that the Richmondville Board of Assessment Review is beyond criticism. If RPL and other highly-assessed properties received undue or improper decreases in their assessments, it transfers the burden not just onto other Richmondville taxpayers but taxpayers throughout the county and the Cobleskill-Richmondville School District as well. If there is a remedy here, it is to be found through either New York State audits of local assessments and assessment reviews or closer supervision over the activities of B.A.R. members by the Town Board or state auditors.

1 comment:

John Barlowcorn said...

Richmondville sucks!!!!!!