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FOLLOW UP THE COUNTY TAX FREEZE WITH REFORMS TO MAKE IT WORK BETTER

The three-year freeze in Erie County property taxes promised by County Executive Gorski may cause some public confusion in years ahead. Some taxpayers will be wondering why the bill with "county tax" on it appears to have gone up when they're assured the rates are frozen. Some will wonder if assessments on their property are making their "freeze" different from what others are getting.

Property taxes, particularly at the county level, are complicated. There are reforms that would make them less complicated, more consistent and probably fairer. It would be good if the Gorski freeze managed to raise public consciousness about the improvements that could be made.

First, though, county residents need to understand exactly what it is that Gorski has promised not to increase. He has vowed to freeze the property tax levy. That means he'll ask for no more next year, he pledges, in the total amount of property tax revenue the county will collect to keep its operations going.

His promise is that the levy will stay at $226 million.

This levy is, in fact, all that Gorski can try to freeze -- it's all that he and the County Legislature control. But individual county tax bills can still rise or fall even if it's kept frozen.

Yes, your county taxes might go up, Gorski notwithstanding.

First, of course, residents will remember that outside Buffalo, taxes for towns, villages and special districts appear on the same bill as the county tax. They're not part of what's being frozen.

A more pertinent factor is the assessed valuation placed on each piece of real estate by the assessing departments in the county's 25 towns and three cities, all operating independently of each other with potentially varying practices. Assessments determine how much of that $226 million levy an individual property owner must pay. The higher the assessment, the higher the tax bill. It's also important whether the tax base -- the total of all assessments -- is going up or down.

The other factor is the imperfect and confusing equalization rate assigned annually to each city and town by the state Office of Real Property Services.

The equalization rate is figured into county taxes in an effort to compensate for the fact that assessments in some towns may be at 100 percent of market value, in others only 50 percent, and in others only 10 percent.

The equalization rates are a good try at neutralizing the differences in assessing practices and making taxes fair for all. But they aren't perfect. The state often uses data a couple of years old, which throws things off. And a community's variance from full value often cannot be truly accurately summarized by just one number anyway.

Tax rates, adjusted for fairness, can differ wildly. Elma, which has assessments far below market value, has a county tax rate of $95.67 for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. Eden is $7.18. Buffalo is $7.76. It's only fair, but it's confusing.

How to make it all much simpler and possibly less costly? Try these reforms:

A countywide revaluation at full market value.

Assuming the job is done right, assessing disparities would be wiped out as all assessments are reviewed and brought to a single standard. As a bonus, owners would find it easier to judge the correctness of their assessments. Just look for a figure that's about what you'd expect to get if you sold the house.

Creation of a countywide department to property assessing for cities and towns.

With computerization and market-value assessing, the old neighbor-knows-best judgment calls that assessors had to make are largely out of the picture. The job still takes skill, but it's more of the accounting variety and could easily be done by one consolidated county department.

The advantage would be getting rid of the confusion and questionable accuracy of equalization rates. They wouldn't be necessary anymore for county taxing. And good riddance to them. Finally, there could be a single county tax rate.

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