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North Amherst residents cry foul over town's uneven fire district taxation

Homeowners often don't notice the fire district taxes on their property tax bill, but they're a burning issue on Schoelles Road in Amherst.

David Prisaznuk, like everyone else who lives on the north side of the road, is part of the North Amherst fire district. His neighbors on the south side of the street are in the Getzville fire district.

For that reason, Prisaznuk pays 4½ times what he would pay if his house were located across the street.

The extra cost this year alone:  $578.

Put another way, Prisaznuk's fire district taxes account for 24 percent of his town and county property tax bill for 2018. For one neighbor across the street, it's 7 percent of the bill.

Prisaznuk, who has raised concerns about this for several years, and a Schoelles neighbor complained about their tax bills at last week's Town Board meeting.

"It's so frustrating," Prisaznuk said in an interview.

What's behind the disparity? It's basic math. Some fire districts in the town have greater population, or commercial development, than other districts.

For districts that can spread their costs across a larger, or more valuable, property base, each property owner's taxes will be lower. For districts with less development, everyone's taxes are higher.

The tax rate in the North Amherst fire district is more than double the rate in the next-highest district. That's because North Amherst has by far the fewest taxable properties of any district and is filled instead with farms and town-owned land.

"It really becomes a density factor," said Darlene Carroll, the town comptroller.

What can be done? Merging fire districts is one option, although that idea likely would meet stiff opposition from the fire companies.

Prisaznuk suggested creating one fire district for the town. This would preserve all of the fire companies, but everyone in the town would pay the same fire district tax rate.

North Amherst residents would love that, of course, but the idea wouldn't be as popular in Getzville, or Main-Transit, where rates would rise.

"Taxpayers are going to sit there and say, 'Why should I help out North Amherst?' " said Daniel Hooper, chief of the Main-Transit company and president of the Amherst Fire Chiefs Association.

Prisaznuk said he's lived in his home on Schoelles for 32 years but never knew how high his fire district taxes were, compared to his neighbors.

That changed about five years ago. Prisaznuk, who is an accountant, said he noticed one of his neighbors' houses has an assessment that is $40,000 higher than his home, but the neighbor's fire district taxes were lower. That's when Prisaznuk learned the dividing line between the North Amherst and Getzville districts runs through the middle of his street.

The tax rate for Getzville is about 72 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. In North Amherst, it's $3.24 per $1,000.

Prisaznuk said he was annoyed to find out he paid hundreds of dollars more than he would have if he were on the other side of the street. He said he sent 40 or 50 letters to all of his neighbors raising their attention to this issue, and most of them also had no idea.

"You're looking at the highest, compared to almost the next-to-lowest," Prisaznuk said.

The area served by the North Amherst Fire District is full of vacant land, including Nature View Park, a 1,254-acre park of forests, fields, creeks trails. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Carroll, the comptroller, understands the concerns of the residents on the north side of Schoelles but, she said, "There has to be a boundary somewhere."

Fire district tax rates vary across Amherst.

Some of the difference is based on the size of the fire companies' budgets. But most of the disparity is driven by how much – or how little – taxable property each district includes.

Amherst is divided into 10 main fire districts or fire protection districts. Most are fire protection districts, whose budgets are set and approved by the Town Board.

The fire districts – Eggertsville, Snyder and Williamsville – have boards of directors that set their own budgets. In Williamsville, however, the Village Board oversees the portion of the district within the village limits.

What's the bottom line? Once a district budget is set, the amount that needs to be raised by taxes is divided by the assessed value of properties in the district – producing a tax rate.

That tax rate is shown per $1,000 of assessed value, and in 2018 it ranges from North Amherst's $3.24 to East Amherst's 55 cents.

Budgets vary considerably, from the $302,867 that North Amherst must raise in taxes this year to the $1.5 million Getzville is raising.

Amherst residents served by the Main Transit Fire Department, here battling a Berkley road blaze in 2014, pay hundreds of dollars less in fire protection taxes than their neighbors in North Amherst. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Getzville handles about 1,600 calls annually compared to about 150 per year in North Amherst, said Hooper, the head of the Fire Chiefs Association.

"I think it's one of the busiest volunteer fire companies in all of Erie County," he said.

And Getzville can spread that budget across $2.1 billion in assessed value, while North Amherst has just $93.6 million in assessed value within its boundaries.

Getzville has the most parcels, too, with 8,680, compared to just 490 in North Amherst.

Getzville has the massive CrossPoint Business Park, commercial properties along Maple and Sweet Home roads and other major thoroughfares in the town and extensive residential development. It's also the largest district geographically, covering about 13 square miles.

North Amherst is only about 5 square miles, running basically from Sweet Home Road on the west edge to New Road on the east, and south from Tonawanda Creek to a line running along Ransom Creek, Schoelles and through the middle of Nature View Park.

Much of the district is covered by public parkland, which has no assessed value, or by farmland, said Rick Vilonen, a former president of the North Amherst Fire Company.

Further, many of the farm owners have reached agreements restricting development on their properties, he said.

Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa would like to have a discussion about the different costs of fire protection in different parts of the town. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Residents can enjoy easy access to recreation and rarely deal with congestion or overdevelopment, but that leaves a small number of businesses and homeowners to carry the cost of the fire company.

"That is the price to pay," said Vilonen, whose son, Ben, the current North Amherst Fire Company president, was traveling overseas last week and unavailable for comment.

When the elder Vilonen hears complaints about high fire district taxes, he said, "We always say to them, 'Are you ready to have a subdivision behind your house?' "

The town has a handful of options if it wants to address the disparity in fire district taxes.

Officials could allow North Amherst to merge with a neighboring fire district, such as Getzville, and that would spread the tax burden across more properties, lowering the rate for North Amherst residents and raising it for Getzville residents. Residents of both districts would have to approve a merger.

However, that's not likely to appeal to the members of the fire companies, because one would be subsumed into the other and it could stretch the resources of the combined department.

"Most companies don't even want to think about consolidating with another one," said Steve Matisz, supervising fire dispatcher for the Amherst Central Fire Alarm Office.

Another option, favored by Prisaznuk, would create one overall fire protection district for the town. Individual districts and fire companies would be preserved, but everyone within the town would pay the same tax rate. "In my mind, it's absolutely the fairest" solution, Prisaznuk said.

Lancaster has had one fire protection district – not counting the villages of Depew and Lancaster – for decades. The town outside the villages has four fire companies, but one fire district tax rate. When David Brown, who oversees administration and finance for Lancaster, started in 1983 with the town, that single tax rate already was in effect.

Could it work in Amherst?

People in North Amherst would applaud it. Carroll, the comptroller, calculated what that overall fire district tax rate would be. She left out the fire districts in Eggertsville, Snyder and Williamsville, as well as the Swormville and East Amherst fire protection districts because those companies cross over into Clarence.

If the other five districts had one overall tax rate, Carroll calculated it would be 86 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

That means property owners in North Amherst and North Bailey would see signficant drops, Ellicott Creek would see a modest decline and Main-Transit and Getzville would see increases of 13.5 percent and 19.5 percent, respectively.

Carroll said this change would require a referendum, and she can't see residents in Main-Transit and Getzville voting to raise their taxes.

Lawmakers have to tread cautiously, because fire company members are active in the community.

But, Matisz said, "It's a conversation that may need to be started."

Prisaznuk is optimistic. He said, after talking about this for years, he finally decided to bring the issue directly to the attention of the town supervisor and the Town Board. Ronald Lemmon, who also lives on the north side of Schoelles, came with Prisaznuk on Monday.

Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said he's willing to talk to Prisaznuk and he does want to dive deeper into fire company budgets and operations.

"Those are the next steps," Kulpa said in an interview. "I absolutely want to have that conversation, because he's not alone."

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