The nation's pre-eminent power couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton, will soon own a house in Westchester County with a market value of $1.7 million and pay property taxes of $26,050.
A local doctor who owns a house in Williamsville estimated at between $1.1 million and $1.5 million pays annual property taxes of $51,123.
Property taxes are supposed to be related to property value. But a comparison of the Clintons' Westchester purchase to real estate in Erie County shows that regulations in New York State are so complex that the results can be misleading.
The Greater Buffalo Association of Realtors, which has put lowering the local tax burden at the center of its political agenda, thinks that the Clintons would pay annual property taxes of $40,000 to $60,000 on a $1.7 million house in Western New York.
"I know that the tax problem is one that is across New York State," said Carole Holcberg of Holcberg Real Estate in Buffalo, who thinks that comparing the Clintons' tax bill to local homes is unfair. "In Westchester, where there is more wealth, the overtaxation issue is not as big of an issue as it is in Western New York."
One thing is certain: The Clintons' 5,232-square-foot, five-bedroom home on 1.1 acres would have been far less expensive here.
A 5,600-square-foot house with 1.3 acres on Rocky Point in Clarence is on the market for just under $1 million.
Not only would the Clintons have paid less for the home in Clarence, their total taxes would have only been $17,500.
Comparing Westchester's real estate market to Erie County's is like comparing the Buffalo Bills with the New York Yankees. They are two completely different entities.
The average sale price in Westchester during the second quarter this year was $464,400, compared with $95,855 in the Buffalo area. Only one of the 913 sales recorded by Buffalo area Realtors in August went for more than $1 million.
Despite the lower property values here, there are several local addresses that would have welcomed the Clintons with a sizable tax bill. A home on Woodcrest in East Aurora, assessed for just under $800,000, has an annual tax bill of about $35,000.
The bottom line for most house-hunters relocating into Western New York is a hoot of joy at the housing prices and a groan of agony at the tax bill.
"In all reality, that's the sticker shock that hits any potential transferee here," said Scott Pytlak, president of the Greater Buffalo Association of Realtors. "At first, they are pleasantly surprised that our real estate is very affordable, then they get the sticker shock of the property taxes."
The Clintons did not house-hunt Western New York because they wanted to be near the business and government hub of New York City, according to Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.
The first family walked into a property-tax bargain in the upscale Village of Chappaqua. They are essentially moving into a house that is far underassessed. The Clintons will pay taxes on the 1980 value of the home, assessed at $345,000.
A full understanding of why property taxes vary so much in New York State -- even between similar houses in the same town -- would require a three-credit-hour course at Canisius College.
Many factors go into setting town tax rates in New York, including the number of residential and commercial parcels in the town, the number of children in the local school district and how their teachers are paid, the size of the county's social service rolls and the town's method for setting assessed values and tax rates.
Schools cost lots of money. For example, $28,654 of the $51,123 collected from the house on Village Pointe Lane goes to the Williamsville schools.
The Town of New Castle, which includes Chappaqua, has not updated its assessment rolls since 1980. The town essentially chose to keep raising the tax rate, and applying the rate to 1980 values, rather than putting the time and expense into updating its assessments.
New Castle residents will pay taxes of $76 per $1,000 of assessed value, while Amherst School District residents will pay $53 per $1,000, Orchard Park residents will pay about $40, and Buffalo residents will pay about $26 plus a garbage fee.
If New Castle decided to update its assessment next year to current market values, its tax rate per thousand would plunge. Many houses which have been underassessed with the 1980 level would see their tax bills increase. Houses that are overassessed in the current system would get a tax break with an updated assessment.
"If they ever update in Westchester County, I can tell you, some tax bills will soar," said Terry Campbell, assessor for Orchard Park.
How do you determine if a house is under- or overassessed within any given municipality's taxing system?
The New York State Board of Real Property Services sets an equalization rate for the nearly 1,000 municipalities each year as a gauge to measure fair assessed values across the state. The equalization rate is also needed to divide up certain state revenues to municipalities.
The simple definition of an equalization rate is the average percentage of current market value at which property in the municipality is assessed.
The equalization rate for New Castle is 40 percent. This means that those 1980 assessed values should be an average of about 40 percent of 1999 market values.
Since the Clintons' house went for $1.7 million, the equalization rate of 40 percent would give the house a fair assessed value of $680,000. But the town assesses the house at only $345,000.
If the Clintons were paying taxes on the equalized assessed value of $680,000, their property tax bill would be $51,680.
A state law, dubbed the "welcome stranger law," prohibits the town from raising the Clintons' assessment merely because they paid more for their house than its assessed value.
But homeowners can use the equalization-rate formula to argue for a reduced assessment, if the calculation determines that the property is overassessed.
The assessment and equalization system to gauge property values for tax bills is a highly inexact science.
"In a perfect world, it makes perfect sense," Holcberg said. "There really is no relation between sale prices and assessed values in the real world. It's theoretical, but in reality, it doesn't work."
That's true a lot closer to home than Westchester County. Consider the house at 245 Nottingham in Buffalo, listed on the market for about $1.5 million. The total taxes are only $22,567 because the property is assessed at only $839,200.