Buffalo's assessment policies are ambiguous at best -- and arbitrary, unfair or possibly even skewed by favoritism at worst.
The problems could be costing some property owners hundreds of dollars each year, while others get away with paying less than they should.
And this time, the criticism isn't coming from irate homeowners facing higher taxes; it's coming from top city officials.
Mayor Byron W. Brown has ordered a review of assessment practices after his accountability panel released data that raises red flags about whether all properties are being fairly assessed.
For example, one map that plotted assessment changes on the upper West Side showed that most homes along a stretch of Lancaster Avenue will see higher assessments this spring. However, many homes only a few hundred feet away on Lafayette Avenue will see their assessments lowered.
Then there's data that compares assessed values with recent property sales. On a stretch of Lafayette between Elmwood and Richmond avenues, properties were assessed at an average of nearly $53,000 lower than the typical selling price, according to CitiStat data. On nearby Melbourne Court, assessed values were $21,500 higher than the average selling price for a home.
"I can't look at that and say we're being fair to our taxpayers," said Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa. "I'm missing something."
Other concerns involved complaints by homeowners on Hodge Avenue who cited jolting disparities in assessed values of dwellings on the same block. For example, one three-family home is assessed at $275,000, while two five-family units located only a few doors away have assessments that are less than half that amount.
"Something is wrong," said First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey.
Other concerns involve a practice that can cause properties in high-appreciating neighborhoods to have their assessments increased several times in less than a decade, while other properties don't see values change for five or more years.
Assessors insist their actions are driven by real estate trends, but Brown said many residents are skeptical.
"When I see disparities, it's disturbing to me," Brown said.
Assessment Commissioner Martin F. Kennedy noted that mistakes can be made -- and that property owners can challenge their assessments by taking their case to an independent review panel.
"We have never expressed the opinion that we're perfect," said Kennedy. "We do the best we can with what we have."
Last year, two-thirds of all property owners who challenged their assessments were given some relief. Assessment reductions ranged from $100 to tens of thousands of dollars. For every $1,000 reduction in assessed value, a property owner would save about $19 a year in city taxes based on current rates.
Kennedy noted that even with assessment increases, nearly 80 percent of all homeowners and 85 percent of commercial property owners are paying either the same amount or less in city taxes than they were paying in 2006. The city has cut the tax rate in each of the last few years.
Brown has given Kennedy until Feb. 27 to prepare a report outlining assessment practices and possibly pinpointing ways to improve.