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Reassessment cancellation in Cheektowaga creates divide

It's never a popular decision when a municipality sets out to reassess all its properties because residents believe a higher assessment means a higher property tax bill.

Cheektowaga officials are learning that canceling a reassessment also might not be a popular decision.

Town officials and residents are continuing to grapple with fallout from the unexpected cancellation of a townwide reassessment. The reassessment, the first since 2014, was approved in April and required the town to pay the firm of Emminger, Newton, Pigeon & Magyar $590,000 in installments over four years beginning with $310,000 this year, $80,000 each of next two years and $120,000 the final year.

The action to nullify the contract was approved 4-2 by the Town Board in late September, five months after it was enacted.

The town will continue its plan for commercial reassessment with Amherst-based GAR Associates for $155,000.

Proponents of the cancellation – Supervisor Diane Benczkowski and Council Members Christine Adamczyk, Linda Hammer and Brian Pilarski – said the move would help senior citizens and low-income families handle their taxes.

“My goal was to cut taxes because we are the highest-taxed municipality. I did not want to increase levies at all, but I reviewed our assessor’s proposed budget increases for next year and I saw we needed to increase part-time staff, overtime expenses and attorney fees to work on the (assessment) challenges,” she said.

Diane Benczkowski. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Benczkowski, Adamczyk and Hammer are all running for re-election.

A property assessment is one of the factors used by local governments and school district to determine the amount of property taxes. A reassessment is generally done to ensure that all properties in a community are given an accurate value. When that is done, the equalization rate – which also helps determine a tax bill – is set at 100%.

Benczkowski said the town was told by the state to conduct the reassessment.

"No one else did it," she said. "Elma has not been reassessed since the 1960s, Lancaster since 2009, West Seneca in 1986. Hamburg reassessed in the 1990s, and the Town of Tonawanda in the late ‘80s.”

While it's true that reassessment can lead to a higher property value and thus higher taxes, it can also have the opposite effect. Kenneth L. Young, 65, president of Town Park Community Association, said he supported reassessment.

“I never heard of a reassessment being canceled," he said, adding: "I have to believe it’s for the constituency in the southern part of town. The majority of the board members live in South Cheektowaga.”

Critics on the Town Board include Deputy Supervisor Brian Nowak and Councilman Gerald Kaminski, who is running for re-election this year.

“We assessed three sets of neighborhoods in three different years and some folks were overtaxed, but the research I did showed there was a disproportionate share of low-income families that are over-taxed,” Nowak said.

The cancellation continues an inequitable form of taxation, Kaminski said.

“Everyone is scratching their heads as to why the town canceled it. I totally understand there were budget concerns, but now we probably will not reassess for four years. Once we started digging into it, we found a lot of the neighborhoods in North Cheektowaga have been assessed twice in the last four years,” Kaminski said. “I could not come up with any solid reasoning.”

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