As we move into 2016 and enter a new tax cycle, a bold prediction: Your property taxes will likely go up this year. Next year too. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but they are going up. Why? Because nothing’s getting cheaper. What can you do? Not a whole lot.
Except this: Grieve.
All tax mitigation strategies revolve around the same basic concept: Pay your share and only your share.
Enter the process known as tax certiorari grievance, whereby a property owner who successfully makes a case for a decreased assessment gets a tax refund or a lower tax bill. Armed with a calculator, a computer and our years of experience, we can get a sense of the accuracy of a property assessment in under an hour.
While arriving at absolutely correct figures is more art than science, it is worth nothing that in New York State, accurate assessments are a constitutional right. The state Constitution provides that “assessments shall in no case exceed full value.” That said, while taxpayers are given an important right, it remains their duty to exercise it.
What’s the downside? Well, in stark contrast to the ease of the grievance process is the murky stuff that underpins the notions of tax burden and tax relief. If I exercise my constitutional right to a fair assessment, is my neighbor left holding the bag when my taxes are reduced?
Not really. Getting the numbers right is as much an obligation for a government as it is for a family sitting at the kitchen table setting their own budget. Like a teenager with a curfew or a credit card with a limit, there are, and need to be, boundaries. We need to set those boundaries collectively. At the end of the day, we cannot fund communities by violating resident’s rights.
The full expression of the constitutional right to an accurate assessment always comes back to the issue of school budgets. The speculative impact on education is the most complex and least quantifiable part of any discussion of real estate tax policy. If the assessing jurisdiction(s) gets all the numbers right, the tax rate increases to bridge the gap. Since most taxpayers on Long Island pay the bulk of their property taxes for schools, the school budget is the fattest cut on the tax chopping block.
So we crash head-on into a dialogue where individual savings are set against community riches. These are worthwhile conversations. Because both sides win. Constitutional rights matter. Fairness and transparency in the tax process matters. But rather than put a premium on fairness in assessments, we might focus instead on long-term investments that arm the citizenry across the board. We must honor and enforce the constitution, but we must also run our counties intelligently and responsibly. In today’s day and age, technology enables us to increase efficiency in all institutions and manage costs in strategic ways.
In taxes and government, sometimes, less is more.