Property assessing is truly a numbers game where up is good -- except when it's bad. And down is bad -- except when it's good. And that depends on whom you talk to.
But the stakes are big regardless. They're big for neighborhoods where a Buffalo News analysis indicates City Hall may be taking too much -- or too little -- in property tax revenue and for homeowners affected by the discrepancies between market value and how homes are assessed.
Bruce Ridolfo pays more than $5,000 a year in city property taxes and gets a little touchy when it is suggested that -- based on his assessment -- he might not be paying enough.
"Absolutely not," he replied. "If they want people with some money to stay in the city, the city better watch it. Because people are sick of taxes.
"I don't believe in that crap that the assessment should be at 100 percent of value. I pay a fair piece of change to live here . . . And there's nothing to say (the value of my home) won't tank. This is Buffalo, after all."
Ridolfo last May paid $310,000 for a condominium in the Rivermist complex overlooking Lake Erie.
But the city assesses the condo at only $260,000 (the old assessment was $245,000). If you accept the idea that property should be assessed at near full value, Ridolfo would face more than $800 a year in additional property taxes, based on the current tax rate of $18.29 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
William Barry also gets riled up. But his anger comes when you ask him about the fact that he appears to be paying too much in taxes, based on the fact he paid $32,900 last July for a house on Hertel Avenue that the city assesses at $55,800.
But he blames only himself for the fact that he hasn't challenged the assessment.
"Now you got me thinking about it, and I'm mad at myself," he said.
He said that the assessment should automatically be adjusted to reflect the selling price and that the burden of proof should not be on residents. But he also feels he got a good deal on the house, despite the fact it needs some work.
Leonardo Tempestoso's home also needs work, and he said he's not afraid to criticize the city just because he's employed in City Hall. But also feels he got a good deal on a Dorchester Road house at $78,000 and doesn't feel the city has it grossly overassessed at $110,000.
The previous owners came down from the original $89,000 asking price because they lived out of town and were in a hurry to sell, he said. He also needs to put several thousand dollars into repairs.
"In a few years, I feel it will be right there," he said of the market value approximating the assessment. He said he might consider challenging his assessment in the meantime.
But while a lower assessment means lower taxes -- which usually sounds good -- Andres Garcia said he was furious when he found out the assessment on his West Delavan Avenue home had dropped from $89,000 to less than $60,000.
Garcia, a vice president for Kaleida Health and well-known activist in the Hispanic community, said he and his wife made a commitment to the city and invested $50,000 and every weekend for the better part of two years, restoring the house to how it looked 100 years ago.
He figured he had a house worth $120,000, but then the assessors said it was worth half that.
"It wiped out all my equity," he said.
Garcia feels the lower assessment will be reflected in the sale price eventually (although he has no plans to sell) and it is better to pay a few hundred dollars a year more in taxes now than lose tens of thousands when it comes time to sell.
Henry L. Taylor, director for the Center for Urban Studies and an associate professor in the department of planning at the University at Buffalo, agrees. He said homeowners shouldn't be too hasty to seek lower assessments, because that can drop the sales price.
"And there is a psychological dimension to it," Taylor said, arguing that lower assessments lead to lower value.
But don't tell that to veteran real estate saleswoman Carole Holcberg. She said that assessments "are basically irrelevant" in determing what a house will sell for and that a lower tax bill can only help sell a house.
In a perfect world, assessments would mirror selling prices. But in the real world, they are primarily a means for determining the tax burden and nothing more, Holcberg said.
Masten Council Member Antoine M. Thompson said it's no coincidence that many of the houses at the lower end of the scale tend to be overassessed.
Many are owned by people who are not well-versed in how the property tax system operates and might not be aware they are paying more than they should, he said.
"We need to have an education process take place," Thompson said.
And, Thompson said, many senior citizens who would qualify for exemptions don't take advantage of them because of a lack of understanding.
That lack of understanding can be costly. A Black Rock woman who didn't want her name used was confused when it was pointed out she had paid $49,000 for her house (her first) but it was assessed at almost $71,000, meaning she was paying $400 a year more in taxes than she would have if the assessment reflected the selling price.
"I don't understand what you're talking about," she said. "I get a bill and I pay it."