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Periodic reassessments are necessary to reduce inequities in property taxes

It’s hard to find homeowners who jump for joy at the idea of a reassessment, so it was no surprise that the hundred or so residents who packed Niagara Falls City Council Chambers had more than a few questions and concerns about possible plans for a citywide reassessment of property values.

Owners of homes that have increased in value understandably fear a big tax increase. But while their taxes may go up, property reassessment is all about fairness in distributing the tax burden among all property owners. The tax levy and assessments are separate issues. Assessors do not raise taxes. The tax burden is the purview of elected officials, who determine the amount that needs to be raised. Assessments distribute the taxes among property owners.

It is important to note that in the absence of regular assessments, some property owners may be paying more than their share to make up for those who are under-assessed. Given the variance at which different properties increase in value, poorer people – whose houses increase little in value – typically subsidize those who are wealthier and own homes that steadily increase in value.

That is not fair, and Niagara Falls is considering what to do about it. That led to last week’s emotional meeting, where residents heard from Assessor James Bird, Robert Wright of the state Office of Real Property Tax Service and F. Cindy Baire, vice president of the assessment firm GAR Associates.

The state, as Wright explained in a story in The News, oversees and guides the process to “ensure a fair and equal reassessment.” He also emphasized the importance of regular updates – which any homeowner or business should want so as not to end up with a profoundly uneven situation after several years without an update. The city assessment roll has not been updated in 14 years, quite a long stretch and one of the sources of citizen concern about a big tax hike.

There is still no guarantee a reassessment will get done, according to Council Chairman Andrew Touma, who cited the cost: $800,000 or more for a citywide reassessment. Officials will try to secure state or grant funding. It would take about two years to do a full reassessment of the 23,000 properties in the city.

The City of Buffalo property revaluation began last May and will be completed in 2018. It will be the first time Buffalo properties have been reassessed since 2010. Homeowners in parts of the city where values have risen – areas around the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and downtown, along with parts of North Buffalo – are holding their collective breath.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said in a story in The News in May that preliminary numbers indicate property values throughout the city are increasing by 15 to 50 percent. However, it does not mean property taxes will increase to that extent.

In the case of Niagara Falls, getting reassessments in balance after so long will not be quick, easy or cheap. Long periods with no change in the assessed value of property may feel good to homeowners not paying their share, but beyond the unfairness there can be a heavy price to pay when assessments eventually reflect what a property is worth.

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