August 2, 2013

What you don’t know about reassessment can hurt you

This spring we paid a visit to our town assessor, Harold Girdlestone. We had been receiving those postcards in the mail shouting, “Lower your taxes!” “Are you paying too much???” These mailings were sent by the proliferation of “property tax specialists” who promise, and often succeed in obtaining, reductions. A real estate lawyer friend said the first step to seeking a property tax reduction is to visit the assessor’s office.

Mr. Girdlestone is a knowledgeable and welcoming man, and demonstrated — after we provided a recent appraisal of our house by a local Realtor — that we were paying about the “right” amount of property taxes. We left the office feeling comforted, although none the richer.

Obviously we are not alone. No one wants to pay more than their fair share. In Bedford, similar homes may have wildly different assessment values, one of many reasons prompting a townwide revaluation effort.

The town of Bedford is seeking an updated and more accurate assessment value through the process of revaluation, in which individual properties are reviewed and reassessed.

In a June 18 public hearing, the town board approved a measure in a 3-2 vote to join three other Westchester communities in finding a private contractor to perform evaluations on properties throughout parts of the county, including Bedford. At the hearing, Mr. Girdlestone said a major revaluation is the best way to correct over- or undervalued assessments. The town board voted to team up with other towns, including Greenburgh, Ossining and Yonkers, to hire a firm to look at the revaluation process.

When the data collection begins, results could reveal inequities in current assessments, especially since the last revaluation was conducted almost 40 years ago. “I think basic fairness dictates that this is something that we should pursue, and we’ve talked about it a long time,” supervisor Lee Roberts said at the hearing. “I think some of these newer properties are assessed unfairly; some of the old properties that have not done any renovations have very low assessments.”

Mr. Girdlestone said that from his experiences as an assessor, he finds that over time, one-third of the properties in a community become overvalued, one-third become undervalued and one-third represent a fair assessment. If a house is significantly underassessed, not only is the homeowner paying too little in taxes, but other homeowners are subsidizing that person’s share of the bill.

The problem with the “one-third, one-third, one-third rule” is that, as Ms. Roberts pointed out, one-third of the overassessed properties will be newer homes or vacant lots. Older properties that have not had improvements may be considered underassessed. For those properties that are overassessed, funds will need to be raised to make up additional tax revenues. That means more from the lower and middle third will be needed to compensate those properties whose assessments are reduced. The reassessment could hurt those who can least afford it — longtime homeowners whose incomes have declined or who are living on fixed incomes. A rise in their property taxes could be devastating to their quality of life.

And, as Mr. Girdlestone confirmed this week, there is no “hardship” case for property taxes, although homeowners may find a number of other ways, such as STAR and enhanced STAR for those over age 65, to reduce their taxes.

More accurate valuations would cut down on tax certiorari appeals. Currently the town has about 40 to 50 open court appeals in New York state court according to Mr. Girdlestone, all of which cost billable hours, market assessments and appraisals.

After its June 18 board vote, the town sent out a request seeking a company for data collection. By teaming with other towns, Bedford hopes to get a better rate. Even so, the numbers are likely to be formidable. In down-county Scarsdale, the cost in 2011 for a review of 5,000 properties came in at a staggering $3 million. Mr. Girdlestone estimated those costs at almost $200 per property; he stated this week that in Bedford he anticipated it would come to about $140 per property, or about $900,000 for all of Bedford’s 5,000 properties. This cost could push the town over the state tax cap and lead to a reduction of other services.

There is a very long road ahead for revaluation, but data collection is the logical first step. Mr. Girdlestone said the proposals would be presented to the town board at its Sept. 3 meeting. “Let’s make it clear. Reval is not here yet,” Mr. Girdlestone said on Tuesday.

We look forward to receiving more concrete numbers as to the proposal’s cost, and urge homeowners to familiarize themselves with an issue that carries so much weight in our lives and livelihoods.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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