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Amherst property owners file assessment grievances en masse

In Amherst this year, Grievance Day turned into Grievance Week and beyond.

Sparked by a townwide reassessment, property owners filed grievances on about 4,500 properties, so the day that Amherst normally sets aside for property owners to challenge their assessments before a panel of real estate professionals stretched instead from May 23 until Thursday.

By comparison, only about 150 grievances were filed in 2016 with the town's Board of Assessment Review. That's 30 times fewer grievances.

Owners seeking assessment reductions met with one of five panels set up on the artificial turf of the North Amherst Recreation Center to make their cases. Now the board has 4,500 rulings to issue, including for 2,000 condominiums from 32 condo associations and about 300 commercial properties.

The number of grievances surprised town officials, considering only 2,800 parcels were reviewed this spring during an informal process with the town assessor.

"We expected less than the informals," said Town Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein.

Don Griebner, a real estate appraiser and president of Real Property Services in Amherst, said there are two possible reasons for the surge.

First, property owners may just be unfamiliar with the informal review process. Or, he said, some owners of multiple properties and large developers may use a strategy that purposefully avoids informal reviews and sometimes even avoids giving presentations to the Board of Assessment Review. Rather, they ask for non-hearings and just drop off their paperwork.

"That way they're not answering questions," he said. "They're not held, maybe, to some standards they don't want to be held to. The problem with that is it's sometimes only preparation for litigation against the town."

The Board of Assessment Review is expected to notify property owners of its decisions in first week of July, after the final assessment roll is set.

All Amherst elected officials saw hikes in homes' assessments

Griebner, who represents clients in assessment grievances, said he felt the townwide revaluation was done well, and the Board of Assessment Review was staffed by competent real estate professionals.

At least half of the 4,500 grievances presented to the board could have no merit, Griebner estimated, meaning in his view the assessment matches the property's fair market value. He said the town's new assessments were so accurate that he turned away many more cases than he accepted.

"Anyone can go file a grievance. Does that mean the town is wrong? No," he said. "When you file a grievance you have nothing to lose."

Property owners can also take Amherst to court to challenge their assessments. It's up to the town to defend challenges to assessments in court, even those that have no merit, and it gets costly. But the town doesn't reap more tax dollars by winning cases. Only raising the tax levy raises taxes.

Reassessments are about distributing the tax levy fairly, so there's not a lot of incentive for the town to spend resources defending every challenge and larger developers know this.

The last Amherst townwide revaluation in 2009 resulted in 332 petitions filed in State Supreme Court, which cost the town over $740,000 in legal fees to defend. A non-reassessment year typically sees between 30 and 40 court challenges filed, Weinstein said.

Town officials are preparing for a similar number of tax challenges in court this year as they had in 2009.

"We're gearing up internally to respond to the court challenges," Weinstein said.

The Town Board last month appointed Senior Deputy Attorney Joanne A. Schultz to a full-time position, effective July 1, to allow the Town Attorney's Office to manage Article 7 tax certiorari legal proceedings in-house. She'll also have clerical support to manage the anticipated challenges.

Officials estimate the move will save the town over $500,000 in legal fees. Weinstein anticipates the town will be selective about which cases to defend most vigorously.

"Some challenges are more significant monetarily and the cost of other challenges to defend them could exceed the amount of money at stake," he said.

Amherst property owners, prepare for new assessments

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