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Delphi suit on assessment doesn't faze town, city

Delphi Thermal and Interior is suing the City and Town of Lockport for lower property assessments, but officials of the municipalities are taking the case in stride.

John J. Ottaviano, the city's corporation counsel, and Town Attorney Daniel E. Seaman both said they never have seen an assessment challenge actually go to trial during their tenures in office -- 15 years for Ottaviano, 10 for Seaman. That, they said, means the challengers never get what they ask for.

Almost all of the giant Upper Mountain Road plant is within the city limits, but over the past 30 years, the city has been gradually reducing the assessment as the auto industry deteriorated.

Although Delphi remains the city's second-largest taxpayer, behind New York State Electric & Gas Corp., the current $23 million assessment represents only 3.6 percent of the city's tax base.

Delphi is seeking to reduce that to $16.5 million.

"When it's come to Delphi, we've negotiated settlements in the past," said Richard P. Mullaney, city clerk and budget director. In the 1980s, the city cut the assessment on what was then the Harrison Radiator Division of General Motors to $40 million from $78 million. Later, it dropped the figure twice more.

"The good news is, it's a single-digit percentage of that $635 million [tax base]," Mullaney said. "The greater impact would be if they weren't purchasing water from us at all. They're a much larger part of the water fund."

Part of Delphi's office building, a mothballed wastewater treatment plant and two vacant lots are located in the town, which has no general town tax. So Delphi's assessment matters little, Supervisor Marc R. Smith said.

The impact on the town's special districts would be minimal, Assessor John Shoemaker said.

The treatment plant is assessed at $7.2 million, but Shoemaker said a state law exempting most of the value of industrial pretreatment plants from taxation means only about $1.3 million is taxable. Delphi still wants to cut the plant's assessment to $77,000.

The portion of the company's administration building in the town is assessed at $2.7 million; Delphi's suit says the value should be $437,000. The two vacant lots are assessed at $20,100 each; Delphi wants that cut to $2,700 each.

Seaman and Ottaviano said talks were under way with Niagara County and the Lockport City School District about splitting the cost of hiring an appraiser to fight the suit. An appraiser probably would charge about $10,000 Ottaviano said .

Ottaviano said Delphi could have used an income generation or a market value standard to arrive at its claimed assessments. "They don't have to tell us at this point," he said.

Delphi spokeswoman Deborah Ayers said the company won't comment on litigation.

Seaman said Delphi might have a strong point on one parcel.

"In terms of the treatment plant that's not being utilized, there could be grounds for a reduced assessment," he conceded.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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