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Editorial: Amherst does reassessment right

Amherst property owners may cringe at the prospect, but in the end, they are more fortunate than residents of municipalities that shrink from the obligation to keep assessments current. Amherst, to its credit, is planning to reassess its properties by 2020, just three years after the 2017 reassessment.

Let’s just say this: Property taxes are a terrible way to fund any government. They dun property owners based on their latent wealth, not the money they can afford. They are necessarily imprecise and, if they are going to be implemented fairly, they are labor intensive, requiring regular, costly updates. Most municipalities shrink from the obligation, preferring to avoid both the expense and the fallout from the public.

Amherst is doing the right thing.

If all properties changed value equally, there would be no need to reassess them. Their relative values would remain constant and, assuming they were accurate to begin with, they would be remain as fair as the system of real estate taxes allows.

But they don’t. As markets change, properties gain or lose value at different rates. This is especially true regarding expensive homes versus lower-cost ones. The former tends of gain value more quickly than the latter.

That means that, absent a regular program of reassessments, people owning bigger houses (or other properties) wind up paying less than their fair share of the tax burden, while the owners of less expensive ones pick up the slack. It’s Robin Hood in reverse.

It works the other way, too. As The News reported in a recent article, a house on Viscount Drive that the town had reassessed last year at $405,000 – up from its previous assessment of $312,700 – sold this year for $345,000. That’s 15 percent less than its assessed value.

As Town Assessor David Marrano observed, “Those folks, they’re paying a little more than their fair share in taxes.” The overassessment demonstrates the inherent problems of property taxes, while underscoring the need to review, adjust and update as a regular course of business.

Generally speaking, a reassessment doesn’t change the a municipality’s tax levy. Some reassessed properties will increase in value, some will decrease and some will remain unchanged. With that – and absent the need to increase revenues or a sudden urge to lower them – the tax rate may change to produce the same tax revenue.

Of course, tax levies do fluctuate as other factors change. In the end, that’s just another reason to keep assessments accurate. To do otherwise is to endorse unfair taxation.

By planning another reassessment in 2020, within three years of the 2017 project, the town is pursing the kind of policy that is necessary in order to tax its property owners fairly. If it is serious about that, it will need to do so again in 2023, 2026, 2029 and so on. It’s cumbersome, but that’s the price for taxing residents on the value of their property.

Other municipalities, and their property owners, should take note.

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