One might think Edgemont residents facing thousands of dollars in automatic property tax hikes next year because they just received notice that assessments on their homes had spiked by 50% or more would fill Greenburgh Town Hall for Wednesday night’s public hearing on whether to phase in the new assessments over a five-year period.
They still might come, but many Edgemont residents, tired of dealing with an indifferent Greenburgh town government, will likely stay home or perhaps choose to attend a candidates’ forum for the Edgemont School Board, which is also being held Wednesday night.
The reason is that even though the five-year phase-in is the only state-sanctioned mitigation plan that could ease the financial pain of these sudden spikes in assessed value, while at the same time giving the Town needed time to sort out all of the mistakes made by Tyler Technologies, the “mass appraisal” company that got paid $3.8 million to perform the Town’s first reassessment in 60 years, Town Supervisor Paul Feiner and town tax assessor Edye McCarthy are against the idea.
As a result, instead of starting the public hearing by having someone either in favor of the proposal, or at least neutral, explain it to the public, Mr. Feiner announced at Tuesday’s town board work session that he plans to have Ms. McCarthy, who is firmly opposed, explain it instead.
Then after Ms. McCarthy explains why she’s against it, Mr. Feiner plans to have a representative from the state Office of Real Property Tax Services explain why he too thinks the five-year phase in is a bad idea and won’t work.
While there will be no time limits on what Ms. McCarthy and the state tax representative may say in opposition to the measure, members of the public, including proponents of the measure who say it’s the only state-sanctioned mitigation measure left that’s still available to the Town, will only get five minutes apiece to speak. Mr. Feiner said he expects at least 200 people to show up.
Ironically, even though Mr. Feiner is now actively opposing the five-year phase in, he was originally all for it. When it was first suggested three weeks ago at a town board meeting, he immediately announced his support for it at the meeting itself, and then issued a town-wide press release supporting it.
Indeed, on October 12, 2010, Mr. Feiner told residents of Irvington at a special meeting that he would never support revaluation unless mitigation measures such as a phase-in were already in place and that he would work “diligently” to study the issue and keep residents informed.
By law, if the Town is going to adopt any mitigation measures at all, it must do so no less than thirty days prior to adoption of the Town’s tentative tax roll in mid-May. That means if the Town were actually interested in approving the measure, it would have to act by next week.
Many residents just now waking up to how serious the problem is are expected to argue that if the Town doesn’t have a mitigation plan in place, it should put the entire reassessment plan on hold for a year to allow for corrections to be made to Tyler’s work and for a thoroughly vetted set of mitigations, including reconsideration of the Homestead Tax Option.
Mr. Feiner led the Town Board in voting at an unannounced work session on February 23 to reject Homestead. In a letter to the Scarsdale Inquirer, which criticized him for that, Mr. Feiner admitted that he had made a mistake.
Enacting the Homestead Tax Option would have saved Edgemont homeowners an average of at least $1,100 on their property taxes, but it would have also required condos built after 1983 to be taxed the same way that single, two and three family homes are taxed. Mr. Feiner, who owns a condo valued at $700,000, was reassessed — without Homestead — as if his condos was worth only $384,000. Had Homestead been adopted, he would have had to pay thousands of dollars more in property taxes.
ECC president Bob Bernstein, who three weeks ago first proposed the five-year phase-in, said he was disappointed, but not surprised.
“Because Mr. Feiner has openly and publicly prejudged the issue against us, he’s turning an important public hearing that could help thousands of Greenburgh taxpayers into nothing more than a self-serving politicized circus that will help no one,” Mr. Bernstein said. “I feel we have already gone the extra mile here. We’ve said and done everything we could do, but no one from the Town is interested in even speaking to us. I can’t in good conscience now tell my friends and neighbors in Edgemont to show up and be heard because Mr. Feiner has already made clear they’d be wasting their time if they did.”
In Irvington, however, a large turnout for the public hearing is still being encouraged.
At a town work session two weeks ago, the state representative said the five-year phase in wouldn’t be of any help because he thought most of the tax hikes would be felt in the first year of the transition.
No state or town official has been able to point to any language in the statute that actually supports that statement. Nor has anyone come up with any kind of mathematical simulation that supports it either.
The interpretations proffered by Mr. Feiner and Ms. McCarthy have been rejected by Mr. Bernstein, and several lawyers and officials in the Village of Irvington where spikes in assessments there have sparked an angry tax revolt similar to the one that’s spread throughout Edgemont.
They have all pointed to state regulations explaining the five-year phase-in which supports their interpretation. They also say that Mr. Feiner is wrong when he argues that adopting the five-year phase in would lead to a loss in state aid.
But it doesn’t matter what anyone says. Because Ms. McCarthy is opposed to the measure, so too is Mr. Feiner and the rest of the board. At Tuesday’s work session, there was no public discussion at all of the issue, with town board members debating instead for 20 minutes whether or not the Town needs a policy in order to name streets in honor of residents it likes.
Because Mr Feiner is expecting a large crowd, mostly from Irvington, he is also planning an hour-long infomercial preceding the Town Board meeting during which time Ms. McCarthy, a Tyler representative, and an executive with a company the Town hired to oversee Tyler’s work, will make their own presentation and answer written questions supplied to them in advance.
That way Mr. Feiner can screen the questions and avoid the kind of public outcry that would occur if members of the public were actually allowed to speak. Mr. Feiner said Tuesday he plans to post the video on the Town’s website and email system. He had previously posted and emailed all residents a 3-hour presentation he and Ms. McCarthy held on the issue in Irvington.
Mr. Feiner is also actively harvesting the email addresses of any residents who complain to him so that he can continue seeking their support. Irvington residents, who are not used to getting such attention from Mr. Feiner, are eagerly signing up.
It therefore doesn’t matter what anyone says at Wednesday’s public hearing – hence many Edgemont residents are staying away. Dealiing with Mr. Feiner, they say, is both exasperating and pointless.
The problem is not confined to Edgemont either. An Irvington Facebook page devoted to the issue has more than 500 subscribers.
The transition works as follows: in year 1, for every assessment that went up, the Town takes the difference between the prior assessment (as adjusted to today’s dollars) and the proposed new assessment, divide by 5, and add the result to the prior assessment (as adjusted).
Thus, if a resident had a prior assessment of $30,000, and a new assessment of $1.2 million, the Town would first adjust the prior assessment to today’s dollars by dividing $30,000 by the equalization rate for 2015 which was 3.09%. A $30,000 assessment, adjusted to today’s dollars would be $970,000.
Then, the Town would have to take the difference between $1.2 million and $970,000, which is $230,000, and divide by 5, which is $46,000. Then the Town would add $46,00 to $970,000 to get the “transition” assessment for year 1, which would be $1,016,000.
In year 2, the Town would do the same thing, except take the difference between the transition assessment for year 1 and the proposed new assessment, divide by 4, and add the difference to the transition assessment for year 1.
In year 3, the Town would do the same, except take the difference between the transition assessment for year 2 and the proposed new assessment, divide by 3, and add the difference to the transition assessment for year 2.
In year 4, the Town would again do the same, except take the difference between the transition assessment for year 3 and the proposed new assessment, divide by 2, and add the difference to the transition assessment for year 3.
In year 5, the Town would simply adopt the proposed new assessment.
Doing the math generally results in increasing the assessments every year by 20% until by the fifth year, when the assessment is fully phased-in.
The same exercise is done in reverse for all assessments that were found to have decreased.
The proposal eases the financial pain for those who were found to have been grossly under-assessed and didn’t have a clue reassessment would result in their getting an automatic property tax hike next year of between $5,000 to $10,000 or more.
Without the relief afford by the five-year phase in, some residents may be forced to sell their homes or else default on their taxes.
The five-year phase in also protects the rights of those who were grossly under-assessed. While those taxpayers may feel they are entitled to immediate tax relief, they can either accept the transition adjustment downward over five years, or they can grieve their taxes and, if they qualify, they can get immediate relief without having to wait the full five years.
Under state law, any taxpayer can grieve his or her taxes by challenging their assessments, even if the assessment is a “transition” assessment. All such taxpayers would have to show is that the market value of their home is less than what the Town says it is.
Tax grievances must be filed between June 1 and June 21, and will be determined in the first instance by the Town’s Board of Assessment Review, which is a resident-appointed body led by Ms. McCarthy. If the BAR decision is not satisfactory, taxpayers may a special action in Westchester State Supreme Court, entitled “Small Claim Assessment Review.” These claims are heard by a special court appointed solely for that purpose.
Taxpayers grieving their taxes do not need a lawyer to do so.
So why won’t Edgemont residents hard hit by the sudden spikes in assessment come out to make their voices heard in support of the five-year phase-in?
Some residents say they’ve just had enough of town government and Mr. Feiner in particular and instead of showing up to be abused by Mr. Feiner at a public hearing at Town Hall, they would rather circulate petitions to incorporate Edgemont as its own village instead.
“It is difficult to argue that paying more and more of our taxes to an indifferent Greenburgh is the best use of our money and is in the best interests of our community,” one resident said.
Supporters of the five-year phase-in say it will not only ease the pain of those who might otherwise have to pay thousands more in property taxes next year, but it will also give the Town needed time to address the many inequities in the assessments proposed by Tyler Technologies.
Because Tyler’s methodology calls for a computer generated “mass appraisal,” there were a number of unusual results that, taken together, call into question the fundamental fairness and integrity of what Tyler did.
However, because state laws tend to encourage communities to engage in reassessment, the bar is low when it comes to fundamental fairness. Accordingly, many lawyers believe it will be difficult to challenge what Tyler did legally. Thus, although a number of lawsuits have been brought nationwide, it is not known whether any have been successful.