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City officials clash over validity of property revaluation process

Describing Buffalo's property revaluation process as flawed, the mayor's top aide said Friday he might launch a "crusade" to encourage more people to fight their assessments.

More than two-thirds of the property owners who challenged assessments this winter received some level of reduction.

"If 70 percent of the people are winning, that says something is flawed -- something is wrong with the system," said Steven M. Casey, the city's first deputy mayor.

"The system works," Martin F. Kennedy, city commissioner of assessment and taxation, retorted in a verbal duel with Casey at a City Hall meeting.

Kennedy acknowledged that about 69 percent of the property owners who challenged their assessments received reductions. But he argued that fewer than 2,300 people -- or about 2 percent of all property owners in the city -- mounted challenges. Many of the individuals who were granted reductions by a city review panel received only minor decreases, he said.

More than 12,000 property owners whose assessments went up this year opted not to fight the increases, Kennedy added. He said he interprets this to mean that most people believe their assessments are fair.

Casey repeatedly criticized city assessment policies, including new data released Friday showing that in the past six years, about 13 percent of city neighborhoods have been reassessed three times, while two-thirds of the properties in the city have been reassessed only once since 2005.

If assessment officials can't understand why many people think such policies are unfair, Casey said, then "I'm not sure what world you live in."

Casey said he might launch his own "crusade" to encourage people to challenge their assessed values when the process begins again in December.

Kennedy kept his cool, calmly explaining that the neighborhoods where assessments have increased three times in six years are areas where property values have been steadily increasing. He cited the Elmwood Village, the Nottingham Terrace area and other neighborhoods in North Buffalo.

When Casey raised the possibility of imposing a cap on the number of times specific neighborhoods could be reassessed over six or seven years, Kennedy politely shot down the idea. If assessors waited several years before raising values on homes that are steadily appreciating in value, the increases would be staggering, he argued.

"We would be shot," Kennedy said.

Mayor Byron W. Brown intervened in the debate and seemed to defend Kennedy's arguments at one point. But he then made it clear that he understands where Casey is coming from, noting that some property owners are unhappy with the assessment process.

"Those folks feel overtaxed. They're frustrated. They're angry," Brown said.

For more than a year, the administration has been reviewing possible changes in assessment practices.

The ideas have ranged from staging one citywide assessment every several years, to reconfiguring an assessment map that now divides the city into more than 120 neighborhoods.

Some state officials say consolidating areas into larger neighborhoods would lead to greater fairness.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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