With many homeowners in Edgemont and Irvington facing assessment hikes next year of 50% or more, resulting in automatic property tax hikes of $10,000 or more, Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner last night said the Town Board will reject the proposed five-year phase-in of the new reassessments and will instead ask Albany to come up with a three-year phase in of property tax hikes for those adversely impacted.
The matter will be voted on at a meeting of the Town Board on Wednesday. The deadline for adopting the five-year phase in, which is moot at this point, is May 2.
Because the Town Board is rejecting the two specific legislative measures designed to mitigate the effects of reassessment – the Homestead Tax Option and the five-year phase-in, the chances of getting state legislators to pass a property tax mitigation alternative solely for the Town of Greenburgh is virtually nil. The Town last year couldn’t even get authorization from Albany to enact a hotel tax.
However, by now asking Albany for help, Mr. Feiner can shift responsibility to state legislators for his own failures as town supervisor to plan and implement effective mitigation measures – as he had promised repeatedly to do in the past as a condition for getting communities to “buy in” to a revaluation the Town had not previously done in 60 years, the last 24 of which were under his own tenure as supervisor.
Mr. Feiner announced the town board’s decision to reject the five-year phase-in not in a town-wide press release or on the Town’s website, but rather on a comment late last night on an Irvington-based Facebook page, “Greenburgh Residents for Fair Taxation.”
When asked by a resident “how things were coming on the 5-year phase in,” which is the last best hope for many of these residents, Mr. Feiner wrote:
“I also understand your concerns and the concerns of other residents who are now facing hikes. The Town Board will encourage the state to authorize a 3 year phase in of tax hikes (not tax decreases). Have been in touch with Senator Cousins, Assemblyman Abinanti and others in the state and believe that the proposal will be looked on favorably. am looking at other possible mitigation options. I also believe that NYS should change our tax system.”
He also said that he and Town Tax Assessor Edye McCarthy would personally be willing to adjust new higher assessments downward on a case-by-case basis, and if homeowners still aren’t satisfied they can always grieve their taxes, and if that doesn’t work, they can file a small claim assessment review in Westchester Supreme Court.
Mr. Feiner also promised that Ms. McCarthy would do spot checks of homes that received reductions in their assessments and if she feels they aren’t warranted, she’ll increase them.
“Tyler’s assesssment numbers can be adjusted by the assessor (meetings with her can be requested during the first few weeks in June),” Mr. Feiner said.
“And if taxpayers are not satisfied they could file a grievance with the board of assessment and go to small claims court which hears all assessment appeals. When the rolls are finalized in the fall of 2016 we want the assessments to be as accurate as possible. I continue to be willing to meet with anyone. At the end of the process we think the assessment rolls will be much fairer than they were. Property owners with similar properties won’t pay different amounts in taxes anymore,” he added.
The idea of an elected town official and the town’s tax assessor – his political appointee – individually adjusting tax assessments to assuage the concerns of residents objecting to increases and are facing economic hardship as a result– may strike some residents as unseemly and illegal.
To prevent using individual property tax relief as a means for local politicians to buy political support, state law requires that the receiver of taxes be an elected position and that the receiver also be independent of the town supervisor.
The Town’s receiver of taxes is Anne Povella.
But there is no apparent restriction on a town supervisor working hand-in-glove with the town’s tax assessor to dole out reductions in property assessments to buy political support, provided the new assessments are deemed by them to be “fair.”
Using property tax assessments for political purposes is nothing new in Greenburgh, particularly in Irvington.
In 2003, Mr. Feiner secretly authorized Ms. McCarthy’s predecessor as tax assessor to offer property tax concessions to Rev. Moon’s Unification Church on property it owned in Irvington in exchange for getting the Unification Church to agree to sell 200 acres of property that became Taxter Ridge.
Ms. McCarthy was later accused by a member of the town’s Board of Assessment Review of offering a “parsonage exemption” to the Unification Church for its property on Sunnyside in Irvington without complying with state law requiring an affidavit each year from the religious official living there explaining under oath why the residence met the statutory requirements for such exemption. The whistleblower was removed from BAR, a complaint was filed with local law enforcement, and the matter was referred to the state’s Office of Real Property Tax Services which apparently did nothing.
The five-year phase-in would have permitted the Town Board to phase in the new assessments in 20% increments over a five-year period so that within five years time everyone would be paying their fair share of property taxes.
Legislation authorizing the five-year phase in was first adopted by the state legislature in 1981 as part of a package of laws intended to protect homeowners in suburban communities such as Greenburgh from the impact of long-delayed reassessments. The Homestead Tax Option was one of the other measures also adopted at that time.
These measures were adopted over the veto of then Governor Hugh Carey, who believed the measures were too complex and, referring to a separate mitigation measure intended only for Nassau County and New York City, might not provide the relief intended.
In 2007, the New York Court of Appeals held that the transition assessments authorized in 1981 could be implemented as long as they resulted in everyone paying their fair share within a reasonable time.
The key to the court’s decision was the discretion given the local tax assessor in the 1981 legislation to determine a property’s “value” for purposes of implementing the transition assessments.
In an email to the town attorney dated March 30, 2016, Joseph K. Gerberg, an associate attorney from the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, said he appreciated the “challenges” the Town is facing as it explores the transition assessment option provided by Section 1904 of the Real Property Tax Law, but “there is little I can offer you by way of specific advice.”
“Transition assessments are not only a local option, but are also entirely administered at the local level,” Mr. Gerberg said. “If an assessing unit chooses to avail itself of the provisions of this complex statute, it is also implicitly choosing to accept responsibility for interpreting the aw it is choosing to administer. There is nothing in the statute that empowers us to assume that responsibility,” he added.
The Town cited Mr. Gerberg’s email as authority for the proposition that Section 1904 requires that tax hikes be “front loaded” in the first year of any transition assessment under Section 1904. However, there is nothing in the statute or its legislative history that provides for, much less requires, any such front loading.
By rejecting the five-year phase in altogether, Greenburgh officials are betting they can overcome any political firestorm resulting from the huge increases in Edgemont, Irvington and elsewhere by either personally doling out reductions on an individual basis, or by shifting the blame from themselves to Albany.
Residents in Edgemont, however, are singing a different tune. They are now so fed up with Greenburgh they are starting to circulate petitions to incorporate. The increase in the amount of property taxes Edgemont residents will have to pay to the Town as a result of reassessment, from 24.7% to 27.02% of the tax levy needed to fund services to unincorporated Greenburgh, or an additional $1.2 million next year, from $12.3 to $13.5 million, makes the case for Edgemont’s incorporation more compelling economically, proponents of incorporation say.