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Tax protests show marked decline

Property tax challenges in Buffalo have hit the lowest level in nearly two decades as the number of people fighting City Hall dropped to just half of the annual average.

The decline was expected given that the number of assessment increases proposed to take effect in July is significantly lower than in prior years.

An independent review board is holding hearings in connection with 1,020 tax protests.

Over the past six years, the number of challenges filed annually has approached 2,000. Back in 1997, a record number of 8,293 tax grievances were processed.

Assessment Commissioner Martin F. Kennedy met with Common Council members Tuesday to discuss the tax challenges. Hearings began this month, and the Board of Assessment Review must announce results for all properties by March 1.

At the prodding of the Council, the city tried a onetime experiment last Wednesday and allowed property owners to register for off-site hearings. Instead of trekking to City Hall to make their cases that their assessments are too high, property owners visited the Northwest Buffalo Community Center on Lawn Avenue.

Kennedy wasn't impressed with the results. Only nine people showed up to lodge challenges. Kennedy said the city had to staff the hearings with seven paid employees and five board members. There were also some technical problems in displaying digital photos of properties.

"I'm not exactly sure that it's the road we want to do in the future," Kennedy said of the off-site hearings.

Maybe the answer is to send a staffer to community centers for informal tax review sessions prior to formal hearings, the commissioner added.

But South Council Member Michael P. Kearns doesn't think the city should abandon the idea of staging assessment hearings in neighborhoods.

"To me, if one person could challenge their assessment without coming into City Hall, it's a victory," Kearns said.

He added that with an aggressive outreach effort, he's convinced that more people would attend off-site hearings.

The decline in the number of proposed assessment increases and subsequent challenges are byproducts of some revamped policies. Unlike in prior years, assessors de-emphasized their focus on high-appreciating neighborhoods where many property owners had seen multiple increases in their assessed values over the past five or six years.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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