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Niagara Falls assessor urges revaluation for fairness' sake

Property assessments in Niagara Falls are out of date and unfair, said City Assessor James R. Bird, who again recommended the City Council order a citywide revaluation.

"It's been 14 years," Bird said. "We have a lot of inequities in our (tax) roll."

His recommendation, however, is unlikely to be acted on this year, Council Chairman Andrew P. Touma said.

"It's not coming to a vote. We don't have the resources," Touma said.

The cost of carrying out a revaluation was not included in this year's city budget.

"City Council members have told me that in their interactions with the public, including their interactions on social media, they have recognized there's a lot of misconceptions about what a reassessment is and what it does and doesn't do," Mayor Paul A. Dyster said.

The question of a revaluation is a politically sensitive topic in Niagara Falls. Two years ago, when Bird brought up the issue and brought in a state speaker, nearly 100 people packed the Council Chambers, with some accusing officials of plotting to use reassessment to impose a stealth tax increase.

"People think it's a tax hike, but really it's just to make things more fair," Bird said.

He said it's already too late to alter the valuations for 2019 city taxes.

"It's a two-year process. There wouldn't be enough time to do it for the '19 roll," Bird said.

An official from the state Office of Real Property Services was scheduled to address the Council on Wednesday to provide information to the Council and the public.

A report last summer by the Wall Street rating firm Standard & Poor's said Niagara Falls already has the state's fourth-highest full-value city tax rate and was at 79 percent of its taxing limit.

The state Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments last year recommended a revaluation as one way to improve City Hall's financial picture.

The state board estimated that if assessments were updated and tax rates stayed the same, the city would collect $9 million more a year.

"I think there's a growing realization that eventually, we have to look at this issue," Dyster said. "You can't just go forever without other changes in the assessment of properties. It's not very common-sensical, not very fair."

Niagara Falls has different rates for residential and commercial properties. State figures indicate the residential tax roll is at 88 percent of full value, while the commercial roll stands at 57 percent.

"The homeowners are paying their fair share. Unfortunately, a lot of commercial properties aren't," Touma said.

"That doesn't mean the little storefronts on Pine Avenue are underassessed," Bird said.

He said the shortfall is most noticeable for other types of commercial property.

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