Change the assessment system

HOW MUCH is your home worth? You could ask a real estate agent or monitor prices for similar homes. But neither method is likely to match that often mysterious official value known as your assessment, often referred to by homeowners as “my %$@!#&!! assessment.”

Everybody in this state who owns property outside of New York City knows that depending on whose measurement you use the state has among the highest local tax burdens in the nation, and property taxes are the primary form of local taxation.

Property owners have an opportunity to challenge their assessments each spring at the appropriately named Grievance Day. But key decisions on what our property taxes will be next year are actually being made at this time of year, as towns, the City of Hudson and the County Board of Supervisors adopt their 2011 budgets; and in the next few months villages and school districts will set their spending for the fiscal year ahead. The amount each municipality must to raise to pay its bills determines the tax rate. The value assigned by assessments determines how much each of us pays when we write that check to the clerk or treasurer.

Who’s to blame for our high taxes? Local politicians say that it all starts with the state, because the legislature adopts laws and regulations without allocating state funds to pay for them. The cry here is: “No un-funded mandates!” But local governments and the voters — that would be you and me — also play a role, because we want services like good roads and schools, but we hate it when the property tax bill arrives. And it isn’t just the amount we pay in taxes. Sometimes it seems like the property tax system is rigged against us. A new court ruling and a recent political gathering addressed this issue.

Last week Judge Paul Czajka dismissed a petition filed by a group called Hudson Property Owners’ Association,  HPOC. Along with three individual taxpayers HPOC sought an injunction to prevent the City of Hudson from collecting any taxes based on the 2010 assessments. The petitioners, who called the assessments “unconstitutional,” launched a legal action designed to get the attention of local officials. If the property owners prevail, the city and the school district, which uses the city’s assessment figures, say they would not have had money to operate until the mess got straightened out.

The people who brought the suit aren’t wild-eyed radicals intent on dismantling government. They are reasonable property owners who saw their assessments soar in a struggling real estate market and believed the values assigned were, in a great many cases, grossly unfair. The city responded that its officials followed the law and applied standard procedures, and Judge Czajka cited law and precedent in determining an injunction was not warranted. The HPOC plans to appeal. But even if the Czajka decision is upheld, it won’t change the view of many taxpayers that something has gone haywire.

Meanwhile a group in the Village of Chatham is questioning the costs of village government and asking why the village needs to pay for its own assessor, when the Towns of Chatham and Ghent have assessors too, and the village straddles both towns.

Giving local governments the authority to appoint or elect their assessors was intended to allow for local control over this key aspect of the taxation process. But for years the state has applied equalization rates to smooth out disparities in overall assessed values between municipalities, a power that raises the question: Why does any individual town or village need its own assessor anymore?

Regardless of the skill and experience of local assessors, and many of them are quite adept at their trade, it’s long past time for assessments to be conducted on a countywide basis by a full-time professional staff with the training, accreditation and continuing education requirements that would lead to a single set of standards applied to assessments in each community in the county.

This would undoubtedly be an expensive proposition, although probably a lot less costly than having each municipality continue to pay for its own assessors. But it’s not just about a more efficient assessment process.

As citizens of this state we have a right to expect roughly consistent treatment from government, regardless of where or how we choose to live. But the current method of local assessments runs counter to that expectation. This system is broken. It’s time to fix it.

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