Like many towns, Copake turns to sole assessor to tame values
COPAKE–After a contentious hour-and-a-half public hearing on a new local law to abolish the positions of the town’s current three elected assessors and institute a new appointed sole assessor position, the Town Board voted to make the switch.
The three-to-two vote split along political party lines during the Saturday, September 11 Town Board meeting, with the three Republicans — Supervisor Reggie Crowley, Councilmen Daniel Tompkins and Walt Kiernan — voting in favor, and Democratic council members Linda Gabaccia and Bob Sacks opposed.
When Supervisor Crowley opened the public hearing, Copake Town Democratic Club President Morris Ordover came out swinging, charging that the passage of a local law to get rid of the three-assessor system and enact a sole assessor system without the need for a public referendum was “sneaking through the back door” and “the easiest way for some people on the board to get what they want.” He said the matter “calls for a lot more consideration, more thought and more input as to what the people want.” A majority of Copake voters turned down a referendum to switch to a sole assessor in the November 2007 election.
Resident Howard Blue called on Councilman Tompkins, whom he identified as a person sometimes willing to depart from voting the way of his Republican colleagues, to refrain from voting to “void” the three elected assessor posts, two of which are currently held by Democrats, and to concentrate on the need for a property revaluation.
Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) Chairman and Police Commissioner Jeff Nayer asked the board to “throw politics out” and do what is best for the town. He told board members that if they don’t have enough information, then don’t vote today, but when they do vote, do it in “a non-political fashion.”
Harvey Weber, who spearheaded the petition drive that forced the 2007 permissive referendum on the issue and previously supported the right of voters to elect their assessors, said he changed his mind and now supports having a sole appointed assessor.
Mac Simms said Copake is well-served by non-political boards, such as the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals and told the board to take time to explore the issue, to ask towns that have a sole assessor how it is going and find out about the costs — up or down. He said that “to target” the town’s “best group of assessors for elimination is mis-timed.”
Al Fair, a local real estate agent, said Copake is plagued by “terribly unequal assessments” causing some properties to be assessed at 35 cents on the dollar, “while the rest of us pay an inordinate part of the burden.” He said the town should first figure out how to get a revaluation done.
Real Estate Broker Lindsay LeBrecht said the problem with the elected assessor system is that by the time someone gets trained how to be an assessor, it’s time for another election, sometimes creating a high turnover in the office. She called for the board to “bite the bullet” and get a sole assessor as well as a reval.
Columbia County Real Property Tax Service Agency Director Suzette Booy, who came to the meeting to refute allegations that her decisions are based on her Republican political affiliation, said that of the 19 municipalities in the county, 14 have sole appointed assessors.
She said that a 2008 study was done on going to a county-wide assessment system as a way of consolidating services. For a countywide system to be put in place, she said referendums would have to be conducted in the towns that do not yet have sole assessors, the City of Hudson and the Village of Chatham. If just one of the referendums failed then the switch to a countywide assessment system could not take place. She said the countywide system is still a goal, but to get there will require “small steps,” first getting to sole assessors, then the formation of Coordinated Assessing Programs (CAPs), “it can’t happen overnight.”
On the subject of property revaluations, Ms. Booy said getting one done is a “very expensive” proposition and that it would be her preference to conduct a reval (revaluation) under the direction of a sole assessor.
For an outside company to do all the work associated with a reval will cost $100/parcel, making the cost for Copake about $300,000. For the town to handle the data collection part of the process on its own would lower the cost of a reval to about $50/parcel, said Ms. Booy.
She said if Copake went to a sole assessor now, that person’s term would expire, along with those of all sole assessors, on September 30, 2013. The town would have the opportunity to replace the sole assessor, if things were not working out, at that time. On October 1, 2013, sole assessors will begin a six-year term.
Resident John Cady demanded to know why the switch to a sole assessor was being made now by Supervisor Crowley. “We’ve got a real problem” with assessments, he said, “we can do this [switch] anytime, let’s get our priorities straight.”
Supervisor Crowley said he began talking about switching to a sole assessor back in June as part of a move toward having the town share an assessor with one or more other towns in the same market area. He said the town could also conduct a revaluation paid for with state aid.
Ms. Booy said during the course of the discussion that none of the towns in Copake’s market area, defined as Taghkanic, Gallatin, Ancram, Livingston, Germantown or Clermont, are currently planning a reval.
The one thing everyone at the meeting seemed to agree on was that the town needs a property revaluation. The town’s equalization rate is currently 68%, causing town taxpayers to pay the lion’s share of the amount to be raised by taxes in the Taconic Hills School District, according to figures provided by the district. Copake, one of the 10 municipalities served by the school district, will pay $6.4 million of the $21 million school district tax levy.
Carol Gansowski asked why the town couldn’t do a reval with its current assessors–Barbara Filipovits, who has earned her state assessor certification, Loredana Delventhal, elected last year, and Ken Phesay, who was appointed to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of William Kane.
If the town wants a reval, the town has got to pay for it from money in the budget, said Mr. Nayer.
Ms. Booy said the town would get state aid reimbursement for doing a reval on its own as long as the resulting equalization rate is 100%.
Mr. Crowley said that should the board agree to go with a sole assessor, he would ask Ms. Booy to assemble a committee to review the resumes received for the job and make a recommendation to the Town Board about the best person to hire.
Mr. Crowley said that to hire a sole assessor would cost more than the town’s current three assessors, about $30,000, or $10/parcel for a sole assessor, compared to the $21,000 the town currently pays all three assessors.
Mr. Ordover said that the town would also have to hire an assessor’s clerk and wondered aloud how the town could pay for the added expense.
When it came time to vote on the issue, Ms. Gabaccia said she believed the town should keep its elected assessors to cut down on the potential for abuse, and that the people should be asked to vote on whether they are willing to relinquish the right to vote for their assessors.
Mr. Sacks agreed, saying he would “choose democracy against a mandate by the board.”
Councilman Tompkins said he “would like to see a sole assessor” and a reval done right away.
Councilman Kiernan said he too would like to see a reval, but said he had “mixed emotions” about whether going to a sole assessor was “the step to get this process underway.” In the end, he voted with his fellow Republicans.