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THE 'HIDDEN' TAX INCREASE
MUNICIPALITIES ARE ASKING FOR TROUBLE WHEN THEY DON'T REASSESS ON A REGULAR BASIS

Homeowners' frustration at increased property tax bills is understandable, especially when the increase is the result of reassessment. The tax rate stays the same but the tax on their homes rises.

As reported recently by News reporter Thomas Dolan, the issue of increased tax levies cuts across the region. It is an issue in Amherst, Clarence, Lancaster, Orchard Park and Buffalo. In all of those places, homeowners saw their tax rates remain steady, or marginally adjusted, while their tax bill went up because of increased property value. As a result of the reassessments, municipalities were able to get the money they needed without having to raise the tax rates.

On the one hand, a homeowner might want the value of his home recognized, especially for any important additions, when he puts it on the market. At the same time, that homeowner might feel penalized for making those improvements if they result in higher taxes. It's even more frustrating for someone who purchased a property at a certain assessment and then, a short time later, was hit with an increase that sent his tax bill higher.

While it is easy to blame the assessors, the fact is they do not levy taxes. Their duty is to maintain the tax rolls and place values on properties. Moreover, state law requires assessors to keep current with market values. Whether increased assessments are merely political cover to acquire more revenue by raising assessments is debatable. The argument can certainly be seen from the view of critics who are unhappy at paying more taxes. It does seem pretty convenient for an elected official to take credit for not raising taxes when levies are increasing because of reassessment.

There is a process in place for homeowners who disagree with their assessments. Some people argue that it's a complex process, and feel the burden of proof is too heavily placed on the homeowner. Nevertheless, people do have the opportunity for redress.

Given the realities of human nature, the fact is that any increase in taxes will be met with a certain degree of unhappiness, if not outright anger. The best way for municipal officials to minimize that agitation is with regular reassessments to reduce sticker shock. State law requires assessors to keep current with market values, but that doesn't always happen.

Towns that take long breaks between reassessments are bound to increase the fury that comes with significantly higher tax bills. For example, in Lancaster, officials are conducting the first revaluation since 1990. Initial estimates are that $635 million in value will be added to the tax rolls.

Getting hit with a bigger tax bill is never pleasant, regardless of whether the cause is an increased tax rate or reassessment. Even in Western New York, real estate values are going up, albeit at a slower rate than most other parts of the country. In Buffalo Niagara, the median price of a home -- that is, half sold for more and half for less -- went from $87,200 in March 2004 to $91,000 in March 2005. In March 2001, the median price was $80,900.

If towns and cities wait for that inflationary increase in value to build up over years, they are asking for trouble when they tax homeowners on the true market value of their property.