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Richard Fromewick Quoted in NY Times, "Assessments: Only Constant is Inconsistency"

Feb 19, 2006

Media Source: New York Times


Sizing up a home? Long Islanders know to look at more than the number of bedrooms, baths, garage doors and square feet. Everybody also asks about the taxes, because the answers can be all over the map.

In theory, property taxes should be affected by only two factors, the tax rate and the value of the house and land. The tax rates are set by the counties, towns, school districts and other jurisdictions, and should be the same for every home within their borders. But it's hard to find much consistency in the way market values are assessed.

Homes of the same size in the same community may be given similar assessments, even if one looks out on the Sound and the other on a Getty station. Or identical homes in the same development may be listed on the tax rolls at widely different values for no obvious reason.

Take Rensselaer Drive in Commack, a typical suburban street that happens to cross the town line separating Smithtown and Huntington. One split-level ranch on the Huntington side is valued at $411,392 on that town's tax rolls, but Smithtown values an almost identical house down the block at $341,200.

An owner blessed with a low number gets bragging rights and an attractive selling point that will, paradoxically, make his or her home worth even more to a buyer. An owner socked with a high number fumes and, perhaps, files an appeal.

The grievance process allows property owners to try to correct overly high assessments. Why don't officials do something about other anomalies in the rolls, like assessments that are obviously too low?

Because New York State law ties their hands, according to Gregory Hild, the Smithtown tax assessor.

''Damages from catastrophes, extensive reconstruction or sometimes a report of improvements without permits are the only time we assessors are allowed to go to a specific home and redo the assessment,'' Mr. Hild said. ''Otherwise we can't do anything else with homes listed below the market value.''

That includes anomalies created by the very process that is supposed to smooth them. At the Windcrest condominiums in Smithtown, for instance, some unit owners won appeals and now pay as much as 17 percent less in annual taxes than neighbors with identical units whose appeals were rejected.

Spot reassessments are prohibited in part because they can widen disparities within a community. Staleness of data can contribute to disparities as well, both within a community and from town to town.

For fairness and accuracy's sake, the state recommends that municipalities reassess all properties every year. Nassau County, which maintains assessment rolls for its three towns, has been working to do that since 2000, when it settled a lawsuit challenging its former policies on the ground that they were biased against homeowners in mainly nonwhite neighborhoods.

But in Suffolk, where the 10 towns maintain their own tax rolls, local officials in several towns said annual reassessments would be too difficult and too expensive -- not to mention deeply unpopular.

''I don't think re-evaluating the properties in Brookhaven can be done,'' said James Ryan, the assessor for the town, which taxes more than 180,000 parcels of land. ''With only 40 people in my office, there is not only a lack of financial resources for such an undertaking, but also a lack of manpower,'' Mr. Ryan said. Brookhaven has not reassessed the whole town in decades.

Shelter Island, the smallest of the towns with only 3,500 taxable parcels of land, has been reassessing them all annually since 2001, prompted by marked changes in the real estate market. ''The tax roll was becoming inequitable because of the disproportionate increase of value in waterfront homes,'' said Shelter Island's tax assessor, Albert Hammond.

Southampton performed a townwide reassessment for the 2004 tax year, its first in 12 years, with the help of an outside contractor, Cole Layer Trumble. The same company handled the first few years of countywide reassessment in Nassau, where its work drew sharp criticism for inaccuracies and misjudgments.

To avoid the problems that Nassau encountered, Brenda Noah, the Southampton assessor, said her office worked very closely with Cole Layer Trumble, and insisted on using the town's own software rather than the company's. Ms. Noah said her staff of 13 would keep the rolls current in future years with the help of other outside contractors.

Donald Leistman, a lawyer who specializes in helping property owners file tax appeals, said he thought most towns were unwilling to annoy voters with frequent revaluations.

''What politician wants to go to the constituents and say, 'We're doing a reassessment in your town, and that may raise your taxes'?'' Mr. Leistman said. ''That's political suicide.''

But he said that towns like Brookhaven might have an easier time tackling a comprehensive reassessment than Nassau did, because the towns would not be under a strict timeline to complete the project.

In order to level the playing field among property owners and cut down on the number who were filing grievances, Nassau was obliged by the court settlement to reassess 360,000 residential properties in less than three years. The first rounds of new figures produced by Cole Layer Trumble contained an unexpectedly large number of errors, along with some huge changes in individual property owners' tax bills, leading to a fresh flood of grievances.

Harvey Levinson, the chairman of county's Board of Assessors, said that the percentage of property owners who win their appeals has been dropping each year since 2003, a sign that the system is adjusting itself and becoming more accurate.

''The only lesson that I would tell other towns to learn from Nassau County is to allow property owners to be phased in to their new assessments,'' Mr. Levinson said. ''You can't expect people to absorb the shock of tripling taxes when their properties are being reassessed for the first time in 30 years. Their pocketbooks just can't handle that kind of sticker shock.''

Lawyers like Mr. Leistman disagree with Mr. Levinson's view that Nassau's system is getting better. They say the number of property owners seeking relief has been rising, in part because the county takes no account of reductions won on appeal in one year when calculating the next year's assessments, forcing some to appeal year after year.

''The county seems to have this attitude that they know better than the hearing officers in the court,'' Mr. Leistman said. ''People were tolerant of inaccurate assessments during the first re-evaluation, but now I am starting to hear the rumbles of a revolt from the public as the county's refund liability continues to grow once again.''

In Suffolk County, tax professionals said that towns that do not begin to reassess all properties annually may be heading down Nassau's road, with an increasingly obsolete tax roll that will eventually have to be corrected in one painful jolt.

''Taxpayers are entitled by law to have current valuations on their properties,'' said Richard Fromewick, whose law office files about 2,000 tax grievances a year. ''If you don't keep a good handle on those numbers, the inequity in taxing the property owner can become tremendously unfair.''