Property Owners Upset Over Possible Assessment Hikes

By Martha E. Conway

(Town of Sullivan, NY – Sept. 17, 2012) Sullivan Supervisor John M. Becker was greeted with booing and jeering Sept. 17 at a special meeting at the Chittenango High School auditorium. The meeting, scheduled to specifically address lakefront and water-affected property owners, was geared toward explaining the revaluation process and timeline.

An estimated 400 people attended.

After the crowd quieted, Becker apologized for having to reschedule the meeting, explaining that town hall would have been too small for the anticipated crowd, and this was the first date available at the school.

Becker said he has heard all kinds of rumors regarding the planned reassessment. He said planning for the undertaking was not done behind anyone’s back.

“We’ve been very open the last six years,” Becker said, again drawing the disapproval of the crowd. “Someone said taxes are going to triple; that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. It is no the lake – and along the lake – against the world.”

Becker said Sullivan is a great town that boasts a low tax rate and a lot of services.

“Don’t get your town, county and school taxes mixed up,” Becker said, adding that the town council is planning for small, responsible growth, not the building of big-box stores.

He said the much sought-after sewers have become a reality, and the recommendations of a study of rezoning Route 31 were shot down by residents there.

“Don’t say we’re not listening to you up there,” Becker said.

Budget Primer

According to Becker, 100 percent of the county tax revenue collected goes to mandated programs – those required by the state. He explained how some of those mandated costs – such as state retirement and Medicaid – have exploded during the past decade.

“New York state retirement was $208,385 in 2002,” Becker said. “This year, we paid [nearly $5.2 million].”

He said Medicaid has ballooned from nearly $7.9 million to more than $11.2 million.

“We [in New York state] spend more on Medicaid than the next three states combined,” Becker said. “We have cut staff by 12 percent, held the budget level for three years and had no pay increases. As a result, the county tax rate has decreased from $8.49 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2005 to $7.43 in 2012.”

Of the town’s tax revenue, almost 60 percent goes to the Highway Department, Becker said. The first year of his holding office, Becker said he worked with the town comptroller to get the Workers’ Compensation Insurance costs down from $100,000 to $58,000.

“It’s right back up there again,” Becker said.

He said costs have increased across the board, and a truck that cost $80,000 in 2005 now baselines at about $220,000.

“[Road] salt has gone from $25 to $50 a ton, and asphalt from $27 to $75,” Becker said. “The town’s health insurance costs have risen from $207,500 in 2002 to $365,093 in 2012, and retirement has skyrocketed from $33,000 to $290,330.”

Despite all the increases, Becker said, the town of Sullivan has managed to lower its tax rate from $3.86 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2005 to $3.14 this year.

“We’re in the middle of the pack, as far as Madison County towns go,” Becker said, “and those with the lower rates don’t have the miles of roads or parks we have. Parks are one of the first places we would cut if it came to that, but no one would want that.”

ORPS Pays a Visit

Assessor Karen Tavernese introduced Jeff Bartholomew and Kate Kearney of the state Office of Real Property Tax Services.

Bartholomew said Sullivan property values, based on recent years’ sales, slipped to about 85 percent of actual. He said when assessments are accurate, the taxes collected on them are accurate. But since the equalization rate is 85 percent, he said all properties should be assessed at 85 percent, whether a gas station, a village home or a house on the lake. But because of the differences in trends and desirability, some homes are being over-assessed and others are under-assessed.

“So the burden [of tax] shifts within the town,” Bartholomew said, explaining that some of the town’s less expensive properties are being taxed at well over 100 percent.

“You had approximately $26,375,100 pulled out of your pockets last year,” Bartholomew said, adding that $2,173,300 stayed in the town, while a little more than $6 million went to the county and more than $18 million went to the school district.

According to Bartholomew, his office has studied market trends over time and found residential sales in the town generally have leveled off after a period of inflation with a slight deflation at the end of the study. He said there is more appreciation in vacant land than residential and commercial properties have remained steady.

A sample of five sales given at the meeting showed a property assessed at $170,300 selling for $265,000, a property assessed at $126,700 selling for $185,000, a property assessed at $98,800 selling for $110,000, a property assessed for $83,100 selling for $86,500 and another assessed at $64,300 selling for only $60,000.

Bartholomew said driving around town, he sees the older, lower-valued homes since 2005 have remained steadily lower in market value since 2005.

“The higher valued and more desirable properties are selling for more, shifting the tax burden to the poorer residents in less-desirable properties,” he said.

The public information, data collection, sales analysis and application of valuation techniques are ongoing, Bartholomew said. The reassessment field review phase will continue through winter, he said, with assessment disclosures expected in February, informal meetings planned for February and March and the tentative roll due May 1. The Board of Assessment Review will hear property owners at the end of May.

He suggested residents visit madisoncounty.ny.gov and townofsullivan.org for more information on collecting data to support their property value positions.

“The objective of this project is to have all properties at market value,” Bartholomew said, adding that lakefront properties in the town of Sullivan will be compared to lakefront sales in the town of Sullivan. “There should be enough of them in the town that we do not have to go outside town for comparables.”

Residents Speak Out

In response to questions about the unique aspects of assessing lakefront and water-affected properties, Bartholomew said those properties are very desirable. A Hamilton Brown Road resident said she didn’t have water, sewer or gas and her roads are poorly maintained. She felt it inappropriate to be assessed the same as others with those amenities. She said the town dictates the services provided residents and it is near-impossible to get a mortgage on any of the homes in her area because of these factors.

“If your home truly is not valuable, hopefully it will reflect that in the assessment,” Bartholomew said.

Several property owners asked if lake frontage would be measured to every nook and cranny or in linear feet from property line to property line; Tavernese, Kearny and Bartholomew all stated assessors use the existing surveys.

“If you see in an error in your survey, bring it to the county, and I will work with them to correct it,” Tavernese said. “We don’t want to charge you for frontage you don’t have.”

Tavernese said another reason lakefront property owners were “targeted” for a meeting was to break the public information process into several sessions to be able to accommodate the number of attendees and varying schedules.

“The original plan was to hold educational meetings – we don’t have to, we wanted to,” Tavernese said. “We had to break them up because we couldn’t accommodate everyone in one session, and we knew lakefront residents would have special questions.”

According to Tavernese, ‘water-influenced’ properties are those with deeded water rights.

“Not a view of the water, but rights to the water,” Tavernese said.

One Lakeport USA resident said he doesn’t have lake rights, but has the option of buying into an association that does.

“Am I going to be assessed on that – something that could potentially happen?”

Tavernese said no.

Becker’s road frontage and exemption were questioned in comparison to some of the lake properties; Becker said he gets an agriculture exemption.

“Listen,” Becker said. “I think the only ones who should get an exemption are those who fought for our country – and I get an exemption.”

Tavernese said there are different classifications for different properties in town.

“And all of them are assessed against comparable sales in that neighborhood,” she said.

Some people yelled that the culprit was school taxes; others said exemptions need to be fixed, that the country is in the middle of a recession or they would be forced off their properties.

“There are more than 7,200 properties in this town,” Becker said. “More than 400 of them ought to vote on the school budget.”

“We didn’t know this was going on,” said George Sarkis of Bridgeport. “When we found out, it was a shock to all of us. We are a rural/recreational town, and we don’t want that compromised.”

Becker referred him to local media outlets for news from town meetings.

Properties in the town have not been revaluated since 2005.

Martha E. Conway is vice president of M3P Media, LLC, and publisher of the Madison County Courier. She can be reached at 315.813.0124 or by emailing martha@m3pmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/marthaeconway or Facebook at facebook.com/meconway.

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