NIAGARA FALLS - Some say you can’t fight City Hall.
But in Niagara Falls, residents have begun fighting against a plan for a city-wide reassessment that’s expected to result in higher property tax bills for some residents and lower bills for others.
Niagara Falls City Assessor James A. Bird who said the reassessment is needed to “level the playing field.”
Many homes in wealthier neighborhoods like LaSalle and Deveaux are under-assessed while many in poorer neighborhoods, like Mid-City, are over-assessed, Bird said.
“I really don’t think that it’s fair that somebody has an assessment of $30,000 on a property that’s only worth $20,000 and at the same time someone is paying taxes on an assessment of $70,000 when their property is worth $115,000. That’s common in this city,” the assessor said.
Bird plans to make a city-wide reassessment presentation to City Council at its next meeting, at 5 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall. Residents opposed to the reassessment said they’ll be there too.
Red and white signs that say “Stop the Reassessments - a Huge Tax Increase!” have been popping up in yards throughout Niagara Falls.
“We can’t print them fast enough,” said Maribeth Gangloff, a leader of an anti-reassessment group, who said more than 400 signs have been distributed.
Councilors may vote at the meeting on a reassessment proposal that could cost the city about $1 million.
Bird said a typical city-wide reassessment will result in about one-third of the homes getting higher tax bills, one-third seeing no change, and one-third getting lower bills.
The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance agrees, calling assessments a “zero sum game - what one property owner doesn’t pay will be picked up by someone else.”
Bird said Niagara Falls did it’s last city-wide reassessment in 2002. It subsequently updated assessments in stages in neighborhoods. But these updates stopped after 2004, before assessments in some wealthier neighborhoods were changed.
“They got as far as 56th Street, a separation between the downtown area and the LaSalle area. When they got to 56th Street they stopped reassessing,” said Councilor Kristen Grandinetti, who said the move appeared to be “very political.”
She noted that some of the highest priced homes on Cayuga Island, which sell upwards of $300,000, have assessments that hover around $100,000.
“Some of the people that live in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city are paying a considerable amount less than people that live in the downtown areas,” said Grandinetti, who said the city has also been overtaxing businesses.
Other municipalities face thorny issue
Niagara Falls isn’t the only community facing a thorny reassessment issue.
State law does not require municipalities to conduct city-wide reassessments, but the state Department of Taxation and Finance recommends full reassessments be done every four years.
Some Western New York communities have gone decades without reassessing. The Erie County towns of Aurora, Tonawanda and West Seneca last did full reassessments in 1986.
In 2015, Buffalo started its first city-wide reassessment since 2010. It’s supposed to be completed by 2017. Amherst, which reassessed in 2011, is considering another reassessment due its hot housing market.
Reassessments have been done in the past few years by the Erie County towns of Alden, Cheektowaga, Grand Island and others. In Niagara County reassessments have done recently by the towns of Lockport, Hartland and Royalton, and the City of Lockport.
“By providing fair assessments at 100 percent of market value, localities can ensure that property owners pay only their fair share of taxes. Market value assessments also make it easier for taxpayers to determine whether or not they are assessed fairly,” said James Gazzale, a spokesman for the state tax department.
Protesting in LaSalle
A decade ago, residents in the LaSalle section of Niagara Falls led the protest against reassessments and succeeded in stopping the city from continuing annual updates before their neighborhood was adjusted.
Now LaSalle residents are leading the opposition again.
“We banded together and fought City Hall in 2005 and we won,” said Gangloff, a member of the Committee to Stop Reassessments.
But she said current opponents to assessment changes have moved beyond the LaSalle neighborhoods.
“They are all over the city,” she said.
Gangloff does not live in a fancy $300,000 home. Her home on 90th Street sits on a tidy block in LaSalle, where most of the homes are around 1,000 square feet.
Gangloff resides in the home she grew up in. Her parents bought the house new for $8,000 in the 1950s. The house is currently assessed at $64,400, with a full market value of $75,764. Her total school, county and city taxes are $47 per $1,000, above the average of $35.72 per $1,000 in Western New York.
Gangloff said a lot of people paying the high tax bills in Niagara Falls are senior citizens.
“We are pricing these senior citizens out of the homes they fought and bled to buy,” she said.
She said city officials are using LaSalle and Deveaux neighborhoods to carry the tax burden for the rest of the city.
She said she feels betrayed by Mayor Paul A. Dyster. “If he brought up reassessments before the election he would not have been reelected,” Gangloff said.
“We plan to be there in force,” said Gangloff of Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t fight the fight for me. I fight the fight for everyone. What the city is doing is wrong.”
She added, “Yes indeed you can fight City Hall, and sometimes you win.”
Mayor on reassessment
Dyster said he and the assessor meet twice a year, and a city-wide reassessment is something they have been discussing.
“We know at some point we have to do it. We can’t go forever without doing a reassessment,” said Dyster.
Bird brought a reassessment plan before the City Council on June 13.
“Fourteen years is a long time when you are talking about property values,” he told the Council. “Our current rate of assessment is 85 percent and a lot are assessed at 85 percent, but some are at 55 percent and some are at 105 percent. There are a lot of inequities in our assessment roll right now.”
He said the person paying too much is paying the difference that the person who is under-assessed should be paying.
Bird provided The Buffalo News with examples of recently sold homes, including some in LaSalle and Deveaux that sold for as much as 30 to 35 percent above their assessed values and others in Mid-City that sold for 30 percent below their assessed value.
But a city-wide reassessments takes time and is costly, said Bird. He said it would take two years to put in place and it would cost as much as $1 million to hire an outside firm.
Councilman Kenneth Tompkins, who opposes the reassessment, said Niagara Falls can’t afford that.
“It could cost $750,000 to $1 million. Do we have a million laying around I don’t know about?” said Tompkins.
To encourage municipalities to update assessments on a periodic basis, New York State offers to pay a portion of the costs, up to $5 per parcel. The City of Niagara Falls, with almost 23,000 parcels, could receive as much as $115,000 from New York to pay for a reassessment, said the state tax department spokesman.
Council Chairman Andrew Touma supports a citywide reassessment.
“There’s always been some resistance,” said Touma. “But some homes have been assessed to their full value and others weren’t and what you have is a good portion of the city subsidizing other parts of the city and that’s not fair and that’s not equitable.”
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