Your Tax Assessment

by Kelly Jo Landers

Editor's Note: Kelly lives and works in New York State, so some of her article is particular to that state. Consult your local town government for dates and particular rules for your town.

This time of year is very busy for assessors. That's right. I'm one of those. As a woman once told me when she found out I was an assessor, after getting to know me through another avenue, "..and I thought you were so nice!"

As I was saying, this time of year is very busy. We are finishing all the values for the previous year's building permits, processing exemption applications and inputting information into our computers until we all fear carpal tunnel.

The number one reason, though, why we are busy this time of year is the property tax bills that showed up at the end of December. "You raised my taxes too high!" is the phrase I hear more than any other. Excuse me, while I climb up on my very well-worn soap box.

I calmly and patiently explain, with a patience that comes from explaining it many times, that unless you built something or made a change to the land your assessment has not changed. Even a small amount of change to the tax rate results in a change to your tax bill. Not only that, if you complain about the tax rate to your assessor you are complaining to the wrong person.

The tax levy is decided by your town board and town supervisor in November of the previous year. The actual tax rate is the result of dividing the tax levy by the total taxable assessed value. The taxable assessment comes from the assessment roll finalized July 1st in the year before the current budget.

If you truly want to affect the tax you pay in your municipality, you must start many months before you open that envelope you dread. I attend all of the town board meetings when they are discussing the budget. Usually this process starts in September or October. Do you know that I am usually one of an audience of two or three people?

I point this out to each person that complains to me about their tax bill. They usually tell me that they don't feel it necessary to come to those meetings for three reasons. First, they have faith in those they elected. Second, they don't believe anything they would have to say would make any difference to the board. Finally, it wouldn't matter what the tax rate was if I would only assess them lower.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. If you don't come to any of those meetings, the board sees no opposition to anything they plan. In fact, they see it as a vote of confidence to have a meager audience. The board most certainly does listen to anyone that comes before them. If they did not do so they would only serve one term.

The process generally starts in September or October. That is when you must start coming to board meetings. If you wait until the public budget hearings you will still have some say, but the budgeted amounts can only be lowered at that point, not increased. I only point that out because, if your desire is to see greater spending on road work, it cannot happen at that point in the process.

The final justification was that I needed to assess everyone lower. No, I need to assess everyone fairly by their market value. Market value is the amount that a willing buyer would pay a willing seller in an arms - length sale when both are well informed about the circumstances surrounding the sale. I hear more than anything that people don't mind paying taxes provided they only pay their fair share.

So what is your fair share? Your fair share is the taxable assessed value of your property multiplied by the appropriate tax rate approved by your town board and supervisor. Your taxable assessed value is your total assessed value less any exemptions you qualify for.

So then, how do we come up with assessments? It may come as a surprise to find out we don't come up with them in a dark alley, dream them up or try to stick it to anyone. Believe it or not, we want assessments to be equitable and accurate.

We reassess on a four year cycle in our county. Every four years we take actual sales that have occurred in the town and compare them to all properties. Vacant land sales are used to compute vacant land values in various neighborhoods. We adjust for any differences between the homes that sold and your property, after selecting the most similar sales.

Market values change all the time, thus the changes in your assessment. When you hear on the news that real estate values are depressed or are rising, you can often get some sense of what your assessment may do. The process is not perfect, not definitive, but we make it as equitable as possible.

Every year you have the right to meet with the assessor about your assessment and to file a complaint on your assessment with your Board of Assessment Review (BAR). It costs nothing to do either. Just having the gut feeling that your assessment is too high is not enough, however. You must be able to present evidence showing that you may be over-assessed.

I always recommend you start with the assessor. While I cannot forbid you from going straight to the BAR, they will ask if you have met with me first. Moreover, if you tell me something that I don't know about your property I will certainly make a change. I don't have horns and I don't bring my pitchfork to the office. I don't like paying taxes any more than you do; I want the process and the resulting assessment to be fair.

While an impassioned discourse will convince the assessor or BAR to take a look at how your assessment was figured, it will take more to result in a change. The assessor is presumed correct and you have the burden of providing evidence to support your claims. You can show comparable sales that you feel are most similar to your property or have an appraisal done by a professional.

An appraisal will take a look at two or three comparable sales, as opposed to an assessment, that takes a look at all home sales. An appraisal can be a good tool, depending on the purpose of the appraisal and the quality of the work. Be very careful to seek an appraisal and not a real estate market comparison. They are not the same, regardless of what you may have been told.

The BAR is a body of people that have general real estate knowledge, but are not part of the assessment staff. They are lay people, just like you, so you may speak plainly to them about your evidence.

The BAR will notify you of their decision, usually within ten days of their meeting. If you are still unhappy with the assessment you can, in certain circumstances, go on to file a Small Claims Assessment Review. You will still be required to provide quantifiable evidence, and will be required to pay a filing fee. The judge will notify you of any decision within ten days.

It pays to take the time to find out about all exemptions you may be eligible for. Be prepared to provide various proofs of eligibility. Every exemption you receive puts a greater portion of the levy on someone else's bill, so you have to qualify. Some of the exemptions include those for veterans, senior citizens, the disabled and the STAR school tax reduction. The best way to find out about exemptions is, again, from your assessor. Remember that we do not have enough hours in the day to seek you out to tell you what you are eligible for, you must inquire.

In summary, your assessment is only one part of your tax bill. You must inform yourself and get involved when your municipality is discussing their levy. Talk with your assessor. While some may deserve the reputation they have, most of those I know are true professionals that care very much about doing their jobs well.

If you still believe, after talking with your assessor, that you are over-assessed, then get some proof together. File with your Board of Assessment Review. Be prepared to present your evidence to the board. Though a review by the BAR can be stressful for the assessor, we won't hold it against you for seeking that option. It is your right.

Inquire about possible exemptions and file for any that you are qualified for. Be careful to provide all proofs of eligibility that are required.

The theme is that Tightwaddery equals Freedom and Freedom equals Joy. Presented by Kelly Jo Landers.

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