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ASSESSMENT DECREASES INDICATE STAGNANT TAX BASES

Area homeowners, among the most heavily taxed in the nation, no longer can count on growth to help carry the tax burden for their schools and communities.

Amherst, once the boom town of upstate New York, saw its tax base dip again this year for the third time in the past four years.

Buffalo's dropped more than 2 percent this year.

Most other Erie County communities experienced flat tax assessment rolls or minimal growth, records from Erie County assessors show.

The only noticeable growth occurred in Clarence and Lancaster, which have been favorite spots to build homes in recent years.

But even in those communities, the growth is just keeping up with inflation, which is at 2.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While there were gains, the overall numbers aren't cause for celebration or optimism about the area's future, said Lawrence Southwick Jr., an associate professor of finance and managerial economics at the University at Buffalo and a candidate for Amherst comptroller.

"If you got Buffalo going down 2 percent, that's going to drag down everything. And if Amherst is going down, I find that worrisome," Southwick said. "It's really part of the story that people are moving out of Western New York."

Property values are tallied each year at this time so that suburban towns and school districts can use them to determine taxes for the coming year.

Considering some of the totals, though, taxpayers better hope their elected officials and school districts can trim spending to avoid tax hikes.

Amherst's tax base decrease of $4 million in assessed valuation many seem small, but it is also going to grow steeper because an assessment settlement with National Fuel, ex
plained Amherst Supervisor Susan J. Grelick.

Orchard Park's 2 percent gain in its tax base would have been higher but, like Amherst, it too suffered from a reduction in utility assessments, town officials said.

"We'll have to look at other areas to make up that loss," Ms. Grelick said.

Amherst plans to use town surplus and savings from early retirements to prevent a tax increase next year, she said.

The Amherst Central School District was among those hardest hit.

National Fuel's assessment reduction and a drop in property values in some neighborhoods within the school district contributed to a 5 percent decrease -- or the equivalent of $1.1 million in actual tax dollars -- in the district's normally stable tax base, said Amherst Assessor Harry E. Williams.

Now, school officials in the 3,100-student school system are discussing budget cuts to soften the blow. But higher tax bills will be unavoidable for some Amherst homeowners.

"It was quite a shock," said Mark A. Whyle, the district's director of administrative services. "We were scratching our heads trying to figure out why. We had an idea it (the tax base) would go down, but nowhere near this."

Others can relate.

Older, first-ring suburbs, such as Cheektowaga, Erie County's second-largest town, consider themselves fortunate when they don't post a loss.

With the area's declining population, sluggish housing market and angry businesses and homeowners challenging assessments routinely, it's no surprise to see stagnant tax bases, said Cheektowaga Assessor William R. Conway.

"I'm just happy to keep our head above water," Conway said.

Cheektowaga's tax base held steady, squeaking out a .17 percent gain.

Grand Island -- where many believe the Seneca Nation of Indian's land claim against the island is stunting its growth even more -- saw tiny gains in its tax base, inching up .5 percent.

"I think you have to look at the area's economy," added Robert Hutchinson, Hamburg's assessor. "When you have a population decline and you manage to increase the tax roll a little bit, that's good."

New development in Hamburg boosted taxable property values 1.5 percent.

The Town of Tonawanda's residential tax base, meanwhile, remained stable with a .35 percent increase.

The business side of the town's tax base went up 3.2 percent. The biggest factor was Indeck Energy Services, a steam and electricity generating plant, which now is being fully taxed after several years of receiving tax breaks through the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, said David M. Unmack, the town's assessor.

But, again, there could be trouble around the corner.

Looming over the town and Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district is the possible settlement of the ongoing assessment dispute over the Huntley Station, the River Road power plant and the town's biggest non-homestead taxpayer.

"If it's settled," Unmack said. "It's definitely going to impact on the future."

Senior citizen exemptions continue to take a bite out of community tax bases, too.

West Seneca, an older, first-ring suburb, saw its tax base go up 1.2 percent, but the increase could have been more if not for a rash of new senior citizen tax breaks, said West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark.

Even Clarence, where home construction fueled a 3 percent gain in the town tax base, was stung by a $17 million assessment reduction for the Eastern Hills Mall.

"It would hurt more if we didn't have any growth to offset that," said Clarence Assessor David D. Folger.

But Clarence is one of the lucky ones.

Cheektowaga's tax base, for example, no longer has enough growth to absorb losses like that.

The Cheektowaga Central School District, in fact, saw a drop in its tax base because of assessment reductions agreed to with Lord & Taylor and Kaufmanns at the Walden Galleria.

The district decided to use surplus to make up the $113,000 loss in tax dollars, rather than throw it on the backs of taxpayers, said Superintendent Leslie B. Lewis.

Cheektowaga Central also will have to pay back the businesses $190,000 over the next two years.

"It's frustrating," Lewis said. "It makes it very hard to try to do any long-term planning because you don't know what your revenues are going to be."

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