Albany should demand consistency, fairness in property tax assessments (Editorial Board Opinion)

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Property tax assessments are complicated but important. They are among a family’s biggest expenses. They fund critical public services, such as schools, roads and police and fire protection. Our property taxes are among the highest in the country. For all of these reasons, they need to be fair.

Longtime readers of Post-Standard know we devote an enormous amount of reporting power to this issue, to help you make sense of how the system works — or more accurately, see how it often doesn’t work for everybody.

Over the past few years, our reporters have documented wide inequities in Syracuse tax assessments from neighborhood to neighborhood; exposed a loophole in the law that allowed condominium owners to pay lower taxes than owners of comparable homes; and most recently highlighted the potential for big property tax “discounts” for homeowners in towns that do not assess properties at their full-market value.

Reporter Tim Knauss compared home sales and property tax assessments in Clay to its neighbors in Lysander and Salina. Clay properties are assessed at 3.3% of their full market value. Lysander and Salina properties are assessed at 100% of their full market value. Even after applying a state formula to “equalize” the rates between towns, some Clay homeowners pay a whole lot less in school and property taxes than their neighbors.

Clay Assessor Rob Bick offers excuses, but no apologies, for lagging property assessments in his town. He claims it’s impossible for towns to accurately assess every property with so few staff. The whole property tax system is riddled with inequities, he says, and “needs to go out the window.”

We agree, it’s a terrible system. But it’s the system we have. So let’s fix it.

New York state should stop giving towns so much leeway in deciding how — and how often — they assess properties. The Legislature should pass a law requiring towns to assess properties at 100% of their value, and to update assessments at a specified interval to keep them current. This mandate should come with some state funding to help towns pay for it.

This may not reduce your property taxes but it would make them fairer. Fairness and consistency ought to be the goal for every taxing authority at every level of government. You should demand it from your government officials.

Change comes slowly, but it is possible. Case in point: the condominium tax break.

Staff writer Michelle Breidenbach exposed this loophole in a series of stories published in May 2018, explaining it this way: “Savvy builders across New York are taking advantage of a loophole in state law that allows all kinds of homes to be called condominiums. That requires them to be assessed at a lower value than traditional single-family homes.”

Breidenbach analyzed thousands of property records to show that upscale condo owners got a 36% discount on their property taxes, compared to similar homes. That allowed them to avoid at least $330 million a year in taxes — and left their neighbors to pick up the bill.

Legislation to correct this inequity languished in the state Assembly for more than a decade. Breidenbach’s reporting lit a fire under lawmakers in Albany. Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, D-Nyack, said he used stories to explain the complicated issue to his colleagues.

The bill passed both houses on June 2 and awaits action from Gov. Kathy Hochul. A spokesperson for the governor said Thursday she will review the legislation. We urge Hochul to sign it.

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