Last year, the state awarded Niagara County a $50,000 grant to study whether it would be feasible to switch to a countywide property assessment system. The answer appears to be "no."
The County Legislature's Administration Committee received the final report on the topic Tuesday from consultant Randy H. Deal, who said that if the county took over assessment duties for the three cities and 12 towns, the county would have to hire 34 additional people.
When she heard that, Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, started to laugh. "That is a joke. You don't have to go there," she told Deal.
Not only would the county have to invest an estimated $2 million in new staffers, the whole proposal would be subject to a dual referendum. Town voters and city voters would have to approve the change separately.
And on top of that, Deal said, the City of Lockport would have to amend its city charter, because its tax roll preparation schedule is different from the other cities' timelines.
"Realistically, county-run assessing at this point in time is pretty moot," Deal acknowledged.
The state Office of Real Property Services is trying to get all property in the state assessed at full market value every year. But municipalities that don't carry out frequent revaluations fall behind that goal.
In Niagara County, the towns of Lewiston, Niagara, Porter, Somerset and Wheatfield are well off full value. The Town of Niagara, for instance, hasn't been reassessed since 1991.
Deal said to bring the rolls up to full value, those five towns collectively would have to spend more than $1.1 million on the necessary work.
"This [presentation] really needs to be directed to the town boards," Deal said. "They have to have the political will to do it, and they have to have the funding."
The state calculates equalization rates for each municipality to try to spread the countywide tax burden fairly among communities with different assessment standards.
"Even though Niagara County's tax rate has gone down four years in a row, because of the equalization rate, the tax bills [in Lewiston] have gone up," said Legislator John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston.
On another tax topic, the committee tabled a proposed law sponsored by Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, which would have set up a scale of exemptions from county property taxes on so-called "mixed-use" properties -- but only in places that previously adopted such a break on their local property taxes.
The county's legal staff was convinced the state law allowing this is unconstitutional, because it means that properties would be taxed differently from town to town and thus violate the constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws. "It's a slam dunk," said County Attorney Claude A. Joerg.
An example of a mixed-use property is a commercial building which is converted to a combination of commercial and residential use. Niagara Falls is the only community in the county that has passed such a tax break, and thus if the county passed Virtuoso's proposal, only owners of mixed-use property in Niagara Falls would see a county tax exemption. Mixed-use buildings elsewhere would be taxed in full.