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GREENBURGH COULD SOLVE EDGEMONT FIRESTORM OVER REASSESSMENT BY PHASING IN NEW HIGHER ASSESSMENTS OVER FIVE YEARS

The Town of Greenburgh, which is facing a taxpayer revolt in Edgemont over a town-wide reassessment that has resulted in huge increases in assessed values resulting in sudden property tax hikes next year for many Edgemont residents of as much as $5,000 to $10,000 or more, could spare Edgemont the burden by phasing in the new higher assessments over a five-year period.

The five-year plan is expressly authorized under Section 1904 of the New York State Real Property Tax Law entitled, “Transition Assessment.”  So far, no one in town government has even mentioned this as something the Town could do, but the Town needs to act fast if it is to provide Edgemont the protection it needs.

The law states that the Town may adopt the five-year plan by local law without referendum, “no later than 30 days prior to filing of the tentative assessment roll in the first year of a revaluation.”  The Town’s usually files its tentative assessment roll in May, with an effective date of June 1.

The law authorizes the Town’s tax assessor to identify each property “for which the revaluation assessment is greater than the assessment for the same parcel on the immediately preceding assessment roll,” and in essence, divide the difference by five and add the result to each such prior assessment.  In that way, the full assessment gets phased in over five years and spares taxpayers the burden of having to come up all of a sudden with thousands of dollars next year in property taxes that no one foresaw coming.

At the same time, those whose assessments were reduced as a result of reassessment would likewise have their reductions phased in by 20% a year over a five-year period.

Those residential taxpayers who received a substantial reduction in their assessments would not necessarily be disadvantaged because any homeowner who is overassessed always has the right under state law to “grieve” their taxes with the Town’s Board of Assessment Review and, if necessary, to commence a legal action against the Town by commencing a Small Claims Assessment Review.

The law is touted by the New York State Department of Real Property Tax Services as one of the things a municipality may do to lessen the impact of reassessment.  However, it is not known whether any other municipalities in New York have ever adopted it.  The state suggests that municipalities haven’t done it because it might be “hard” to implement.

The alternative in Greenburgh, if the transition is not adopted, is that Edgemont may incorporate, which means the Town will lose the 27% that Edgemont will be expected to contribute to the town budget for unincorporated Greenburgh.

At tonight’s town board meeting, town assessor Edye McCarthy said there was “no way” Greenburgh would ever agree to “opt in” to the five-year transition because she said there was “no software available” to allow the Town to add up the number of property owners whose assessments went up and down, respectively divide their new assessment increases or decreases by five, and add or subtract each total to the next year’s assessment roll.  She also told town board members that no municipality in New York had ever done this before and that it would be politically untenable to deny taxpayers who were overassessed the immediate benefits of their new reduced assessment.

Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, however, expressed a different view and said he would support introducing a local law as soon as he could in order to get the five-year transition plan implemented.  Based on past practice, though, if any such law does get introduced, the ECC may have to draft it and, of course, merely introducing the law, as Mr. Feiner promised to do, is no guarantee it will get approved.

Although Ms. McCarthy said that the idea of doing a five-year transition had been considered and rejected earlier this week by the town board, Mr. Feiner said he was unaware of any law allowing this until ECC president Bob Bernstein first brought it up.  Councilman Francis Sheehan likewise expressed interest in the law, having apparently just read it for the first time tonight, and warned that the Town would have to act fast in order to get it implemented in time.

Ms. McCarthy, however, was telling residents at the meeting that it didn’t matter what Mr. Feiner said, she was certain the five-year transition would never happen.

The Edgemont firestorm arose because it turns out that of the 24% of town taxpayers who saw an increase in their assessments, not only were many located in Edgemont, but the magnitude of the increases were in many cases as much as 50% or more.  The burden is falling particularly hard on younger Edgemont families who moved recently into Edgemont to get their children enrolled in Edgemont schools. They paid top dollar to buy homes in Edgemont, have little discretionary income set aside to pay huge increases in property taxes, and never had any clue when they bought that their houses were grossly under-assessed.

Many of these residents are so outraged by the Town’s actions, they are contacting each other determined to do whatever it takes to get Edgemont to incorporate and become its own village.

Ms. McCarthy tried to put a happy face on reassessment by pointing to statistics showing that taxpayers in the Edgemont school district only experienced a 9% increase in their assessments overall.  However, that was a net figure that didn’t take into account the fact that those who got increases saw in many their assessments climb more than 50% or more.

Mr. Bernstein demanded tonight that the Town release the data showing how many Edgemont residents had experienced increases in their assessments and by how much. Mr. Feiner said he would instruct the Town to release that data.

Another step the Town Board could have taken to help Edgemont homeowners was adopt the Homestead Tax Option.  At a hastily convened “work session” on February 23, where the issue was never on any agenda, the Town Board voted unanimously to reject the Homestead Tax Option.

Under Homestead, the Town Board could have permitted a more limited form of phase-in of the new assessment which would create two property classifications – Homestead (meaning one, two and three family homes, plus condos built after 1983) and commercial properties.  The calculation allows for the creation of a slightly lower tax rate for Homestead properties than would be the case without Homestead, which helps to ease the burden of reassessment.

Had Homestead been adopted, the average Edgemont homeowner facing a hike in its assessments could have seen a savings of as much as $1,500 in school taxes alone.

Thus, for example, an average Edgemont home with a pre-reval assessment of $30,000 would have had a home worth $970,000.  After reassessment, that new home might have been assigned a new value of $1.3 million, or a 34% increase. Many Edgemont homes, of course, have seen increases far greater than that.

However, the existing Edgemont school tax without Homestead was determined to be $17.66 per thousand dollars of assessed value, but that number becomes only $16.53 with Homestead.  The difference with a house newly assessed at $1.3 million translates into a savings of $1,500 with Homestead.

Edgemont residents facing huge new assessments are furious that the Town Board rejected Homestead without any public discussion.

Even worse, not only did the Town Board fail to release the documents it claimed it was relying on when it made that decision, but Town Supervisor Paul Feiner had a substantial personal financial interest in the outcome:  he owns a condo that would have faced an increase in property taxes if condos were taxed the same as single family homes.  Without Homestead, condos are taxed as if they were rental properties, which means condos like Feiner’s are taxed at about 50% of what they are actually worth on the open market.

Since the February 23 meeting of the town board where Homestead was summarily rejected, the Edgemont Community Council has obtained documents from the Town under the Freedom of Information Law which shows that town board members knew or should have known that Edgemont taxpayers were bearing the brunt of the increases in reassessment, that they would be facing huge tax hikes as a result, and that Homestead, if adopted, would at least have lessened the pain.

Not only that, the ECC obtained a copy of a state-prepared powerpoint presentation which showed that in order for a proper discussion in a community of the pros and cons of adopting Homestead, the Town must prepare two different tax assessment rolls and disclose to all homeowners the consequences in terms of the taxes they would have to pay if Homestead were adopted and if it were not.

The Town Board knew these procedures were the ones to be followed – Mr. Feiner expressly said at the time the Town was complying with state-mandated procedures, but town board members, led by Mr. Feiner, chose not to follow them.

Edgemont residents are also signing up in droves to challenge their assessments through private meetings with Tyler Technology, the company that the Town hired to do the assessments.

But here too, town leaders are making it difficult if not impossible for residents to have constructive meetings with Tyler.  Thus, the Town has thus far failed to disclose the criteria Tyler used to come up with their new assessments.  Such criteria include special “zones” for different parts of Edgemont, where land in one part of Edgemont might be valued more than land in another part.  Nor has the Town disclosed where those zones are, how they were determined, or what the differences are in terms of value.

To make it even worse, town leaders have also failed to identify any of the other criteria used by Tyler, including how comparable home values were selected, and how to determine whether the home’s construction or maintenance was graded; it turns out Tyler uses one of three grades, but no one knows how those grades are determined and, of course, no one knows what grades their own home received.

As a result, town leaders are allowing residents to meet blindly with Tyler.  Thus, even if Tyler may have made mistakes, residents are in no position, not knowing how Tyler did its work, how to make the most of their 15-minute meetings with Tyler.

At tonight’s town board meeting, Mr. Bernstein asked that the Town release the criteria that Tyler used in coming up with its assessments so that residents who choose to meet with Tyler would know what to address to make sure Tyler did its work correctly.

Mr. Feiner said he would ask Ms. McCarthy to release that information, but Ms. McCarthy showed no signs tonight of any willingness to do so.  She insisted that Tyler’s staff were all “well trained experienced professionals” and that the criteria they used was developed in consultation with her and real estate professionals throughout the Town.  In short, she said residents should trust Tyler, not question their methodology or whether the methodology they employed was accurate, and should instead use their 15 minutes with Tyler to just present their own evidence of what they think the market value of their homes is.

Mr. Bernstein asked Mr. Feiner earlier this week to make the process transparent, but Mr. Feiner instead used the occasion of Tuesday’s work session to blast Tyler for not being responsive enough when residents call to make appointments.

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