For the first time, some Buffalo property owners who think their assessments are too high will be able to wage their fights for relief by visiting a community center instead of trekking to City Hall.
A one-time experiment will be conducted Jan. 12 to see whether off-site hearings held by the Board of Assessment Review will pose too many logistical headaches. About 20 property owners who have already filed assessment challenges will attend hearings at the Northwest Buffalo Community Center on Lawn Avenue in Riverside.
All other challenges will be considered at hearings in City Hall using a procedure that has been in place for decades.
For two years, the Common Council has been prodding assessors to move hearings into neighborhoods.
The Board of Assessment Review rejected the notion last year, but the panel has decided to experiment with the concept next month.
"It's strictly a test to see how much of a disruption, if any, there will be in our operations," Assessment and Taxation Commissioner Martin F. Kennedy said Tuesday.
Board members will set up shop in the community center, as will the commissioner. Computers will be equipped with special software. Assessors will be on hand to answer questions, while administrative staff will deal with paperwork. "Lock, stock and barrel, we're moving everything there for a day," Kennedy said.
The Riverside section was selected because that's where a majority of the assessment changes occurred this year, Kennedy said.
North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., who represents the area, said he is taking a wait-and-see stance before deciding whether the off-site hearings should be expanded in future years. "It's probably going to be easier for some neighborhood residents," he said. "But it also has to be cost-effective," he said of the process of moving the equipment to various locations across the city.
The lead sponsor of the Council bill that pushed for neighborhood-based hearings praised assessors for launching the pilot project.
"This is the first step toward bringing government closer to the people," said South Council Member Michael P. Kearns.
Property owners have until Jan. 3 to file assessment challenges. All inquiries can be made through the city's 311 call center. Information is also available on the city's website at www.buffalo-city.com in the Assessment Department section.
The number of property owners who are tentatively set to see their assessments increase next summer has dropped to the lowest level in at least 15 years. Fewer than 2,400 properties are slated to see increases, based on data released in the fall by the Assessment Department. By comparison, an average of 10,170 property owners got notices of higher assessments in each of the last five years.