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In an abnormal year, Lancaster reassessment goes on as normal

In 2017, Joseph Prybylski bought a 26,000-square-foot multi-use building on St. Joseph Street in Lancaster for $360,000. The property was recently valued by the town for $570,000. An adjoining parcel on Aurora Street was reassessed from $23,000 to $115,000. His residence on Madison Street was assessed at $155,000, up from $105,000.

Prybylski, an electrician, would like to stand before town officials and explain why he believes those values are unfair. In a normal year, he would have done so already.

But he can't. This is not a normal year.

“It’s not fair for anyone who would not be able to physically stand before the board and explain their situation or compare and contrast like you should be able to," he said. “Doing it over the phone is so much different than being able to view who you’re speaking with and state your case. It’s just not the same.”

Lancaster's townwide reassessment had been planned for years with notices for 19,200 properties mailed to residents and business owners in early March, just before Covid-19 began to make an impact on Western New York. While other municipalities, including Cheektowaga and Grand Island, decided to postpone their reassessment projects because of social distancing guidelines that could affect residents' ability to challenge their property values, Lancaster did not.

“You cannot just hit a pause button and use the same numbers next year," said town Assessor Rebecca Baker. "They’re really not valid anymore."

That is not a unanimous opinion in New York. Fifty municipalities throughout the state were continuing their assessments, including the Town of Newstead, said Baker. Twenty-nine postponed, including Cheektowaga, Grand Island and several municipalities in Genesee County.

Municipalities periodically reassess all of their properties as a way to ensure that the property tax liability is spread evenly. Property tax bills to fund schools and municipalities are based on a parcel's value. The goal is to have every property assessed at 100% of its value.

Without a reassessment, values can become skewed, with some property owners paying more than their fair share, and some less.

Lancaster’s revaluation was its first in a decade.

“The numbers themselves, there were very large increases,” Baker said. “Yes, maybe you were one of the unfortunate ones where the assessment has gone up drastically, but what that actually means is that for the last few years, you’ve been underpaying.”

Reassessments typically lead to challenges from residents who believe the new value of their property is too high. Those challenges can include a face-to-face meeting with municipal officials.

But new social distancing guidelines during the pandemic make such meetings impossible.

In spite of those challenges, postponing the town's revaluation was never an option, said Lancaster Supervisor Ronald Ruffino.

"The project is for all practical purposes complete," he said. "The unfortunate thing is we haven’t done it in 10 years, so things are quite out of whack."

Mark V. LaFratta’s two-family home on Miller Street in Depew went from an assessed value of $175,000 to $320,000. His estimated property taxes will jump more than $2,000, from $5,704 to $7,808. LaFratta, 41, is challenging his revaluation. He found information online and dropped his documents in the mail slot because Town Hall was closed.

Baker noted that even the informal review process for preliminary assessment challenge is conducted by phone. She said that if residents were unable to submit their application for review, parks department employees were sent to pick them up. Informal review meetings, usually conducted with residents at Town Hall, were replaced by phone calls, Baker said.

“There really should be no complaining that people did not have an opportunity,” said Baker. “There was no contact. We have really bent over backwards to accommodate and understand. I gave out my personal cell number to people who did not have computers, so they could text me photos. I think people had more opportunity – not the same opportunities – with Covid-19.”

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