Owners of 190 commercial and upscale residential properties in Amherst have gone to State Supreme Court seeking assessment reductions totaling $194 million.
It's the final battleground over this year's townwide reassessment.
And the outcome could affect the tax bills sent to all other Amherst property owners.
Town officials say they’ll aggressively defend their assessments, and the property owners’ attorneys say they’ll present persuasive cases for their lower numbers. But some settlements are likely, and any reductions in the assessments will result in lost tax revenue that all other town property owners will have to make up.
"It's a matter of them paying their fair share, because ultimately if they're not paying as much as they should then the other property owners, the homeowners, pay more," said Deputy Town Attorney Joanne A. Schultz.
The town put a total assessment of $586.8 million on the 190 properties. Forty-two of them are single-family homes, 37 are apartment buildings, 23 are condominium communities and six are nursing homes.
Some of the properties are familiar retail stores such as Great Skate on Sheridan Drive, which is seeking a reduction of $501,375 from its new assessment of $1.04 million.
Others are corner drugstores, bank branches and plazas like the one on Niagara Falls Boulevard anchored by a Burlington Coat Factory. Owners of seven homes on Le Brun Road that the town says are worth $5 million banded together and requested reductions totaling more than $1 million.
At $30.64 million, the Greythorne condominium community off Main Street is the highest-assessed property seeking a reduction. In fact, condominium communities, which are valued as a whole, account for six of the top 10 highest-valued properties seeking reductions.
"They have shown squat to justify that number and frankly I think they were throwing darts to reach that number," said Peter Allen Weinmann, the attorney representing Greythorne residents.
The $12.36 million reduction Greythorne residents are seeking is the second largest, behind the $13 million reduction sought by the owners of Capital Senior Living, a nursing home on Maple Road. Weinmann said he'll show "a complete financial analysis" in court to justify such a significant reduction.
"We didn't just pick that number out of thin air," he said.
Burden is on petitioner
The court petitions are an owner's third and final opportunity to win a reduction. There's already been an informal review process before the town assessor's staff and grievances filed before the Board of Assessment Review. With the assessment cases in Supreme Court, the burden is on the owner to prove they're over-assessed.
"The assessment is correct unless they can show us that it isn't," said Schultz, who has been assigned to work full time on the cases. "If you want us to negotiate you better show us something that says our assessment is wrong. They need to produce documents."
The primary reason assessments increased as much as they have is because it has been eight years since the last revaluation in 2009, which is longer than it should have been, real estate experts say. A second reason is that the real estate market in Amherst has been very strong in the past few years, and sale prices increased significantly.
Apartments are the fastest growing property class in the town, said Town Assessor David Marrano. Rents are increasing, which means assessments increased as well, he said.
In previous years, outside law firms handled assessment challenges in court for the town. The town spent $750,000 on those services in 2009 during the last townwide reassessment. But officials say keeping the legal work in-house this time will be more efficient and cost-effective.
Marrano said many property owners' attorneys know the town has limited resources and have to defend many cases at once. He accused them of filing "frivolous cases with little or no merit because they know there is a cost constraint."
"Many of the attorneys and tax reps are trying to take advantage of the system by putting a lot of challenges into the system in the hopes that the town will just crumble and settle," Marrano said. "That will not be the case at this time."
Weinmann, who is representing owners of 98 of the 190 properties, said that's not how he or his firm operates. The firm doesn't solicit cases and turns away potential clients who don't have a case, he said.
"We have never operated in that fashion," Weinmann said. "We have never benefitted from a town crumbling and folding. We've always litigated vigorously. This is all we do."
Cases also filed in Small Claims Court
In addition to the 190 properties in State Supreme Court, owners of 194 owner-occupied Amherst residences worth $70.5 million are challenging their new assessments through Small Claims Court, which is a less expensive and complex process. Those owners are seeking reductions totaling $14.2 million. The last townwide reasessment, in 2009, prompted 346 challenges in Small Claims Court.
Those Small Claims Court hearings started this week and should be complete by early October. Staff from the Assessor's Office represents the town at the hearings.
The town also received notice that challenges to 36 properties still unresolved from last year have been refiled.
"The bottom line is we are just looking for our clients to pay their fair share," said Weinmann.
Marrano offered a "bottom line" as well.
"The bottom line is, whether you're a residential property owner or a commercial property owner, if you're going to challenge your assessment bring in factual, hard-fact data to support your case," he said. "When you bring nonsense, you're not going to get any sort of a reduction."