Law should protect homeowners from bad reassessment policies

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John Howell and his wife Maria Arza saw the tax bill on their Buffalo home rise by 150% after the recent reassessment. Howell has cancer and is concerned about how his wife will pay the higher bill after he dies. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Property reassessments in Buffalo and other municipalities share a common problem: They were allowed to drift so far from reality for so long that for some property owners, reassessment leads to economic shock. To avoid that outcome, local governments need to make the hard decision to conduct regular, large-scale revaluations and then figure out, with Albany leading the way, how to protect those at risk of losing their homes.

In Buffalo, the Common Council could start by drafting enabling legislation so that state lawmakers might expand a limited property tax exemption provision citywide. That useful tool froze assessments for about 350 low-income senior residents, hit by Buffalo’s first “true revaluation” in nearly two decades. But it has a narrow band, applying only to residents living in certain low-income neighborhoods and requiring 25 years of ownership by applicants who are at least 65 years old.

Consider John Howell and his wife, Maria Arza. With help from family, they bought their house in 2010 – nowhere near the required 25-year ownership rule. Their home’s value ballooned to $182,000 from $48,500.

Howell, 65, does not know if he’ll be around to help his wife manage the higher taxes on a “dated, three-bedroom home, south of Forest Lawn.” Doctors diagnosed him with a recurrence of metastatic uveal melanoma in August 2018 and gave him 18 to 24 months to live, and their new tax bill just went from about $1,000 a year to more than $2,500. Howell said his wife will have to sell and “figure something else out.” If that’s not a crime, it’s the next thing to it.

A Buffalo News analysis of more than 60,000 residential assessment records show West Side homeowners were hit hard, with average assessments increasing by as much as 272% in the area east of Niagara Street and west of Symphony Circle. The action raised property tax bills by hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars and could displace longtime residents.

Lucy Velez, 58, who lives near SUNY Buffalo State, used some part of her burial savings to cover her new payments, after the home she purchased a couple of decades ago for $28,000 was revalued at $162,000. On Johnson Parkway, west of downtown, 66-year-old Marilyn Rodgers might sell her TV to pay her tax bill. The house she and her ex-partner bought in the 1990s doubled in value to $150,000, and that was after she challenged the new assessment.

There is a desirable resurgence occurring in the city. It is starting to radiate into once-forgotten neighborhoods. But when the people who were living there – especially those on fixed incomes – can no longer afford to do so, elected officials must step in. That begins with a routine program of reassessments so that any changes in tax bills are gradual.

Indeed, regular reassessment would all but eliminate tax shock. The purpose of reassessment is simply to ensure the tax burden is fairly distributed among property owners.

Assessors do not raise taxes. Cheektowaga Councilman Gerald P. Kaminski, a frequent opponent of Supervisor Diane Benczkowski, made that point when he questioned her efforts to derail the current revaluation: “ … There are some people who were paying more than their fair share of taxes,” he said. “This is about being fair.” He’s right.

In Lancaster, town officials must face the ire of citizens after 19,202 assessment notices got mailed. It had been a decade since the last townwide reassessment and values were out of whack. Town officials, with the part-time assessment clerk leading the pack, also saw their own property values increase between 19% and 48%.

Robert Leary of Sawgrass Lane is the Town Board’s representative on the revaluation project and saw his home value rise by 32%. He made a good suggestion: Conduct assessments every year to find trend and report those findings to residents.

Politicians do not like to conduct assessments for fear of losing votes, but that is a poor excuse when failing to stay current hurts homeowners, renters and anyone else wishing to stay part of the community. Keep them current and find ways to protect those at risk of loss. Municipalities need to take on this task. But Albany should help – and push.

Published by The Buffalo News

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