11 years since last reval, Guilderland is at 88 %

GUILDERLAND — This suburban town, which once performed town-wide reassessments of properties every three years, hasn’t done so since 2005.

“The national and international standards say there should be full review once every six years,” said Geoffrey Gloak, spokesman for the Office of Real Property Tax Services. “In the interim years, you adjust based on statistical analysis of real-estate market changes.”

The state has no enforcement mechanism for forcing municipalities with skewed tax rolls to reassess.  “The decision to conduct a reassessment is a local decision,” said Gloak. “We encourage it with a state aid program.”

He added, “The longer since a reassessment, the more important it is to do it.”

The town of Westerlo, for example, hasn’t reassessed in decades. The state-set equalization rate for Westerlo is less than 1 percent of market value.

The state-set equalization rate for Guilderland is currently at 88 percent. That means that, if someone buys a home in Guilderland for $100,000, it should be on the tax rolls for $88,000.

While it’s not ideal, those who work most closely with property values in town — the assessor and the chairman of the Board of Assessment Review — say its workable and that, to perform a town-wide revaluation, would be cost prohibitive.

“The equalization rate is supposed to take care of any issue, so we’re judged fairly across the state,” said Guilderland Assessor Karen VanWagenen. “We’re not as bad as a lot of others….We’re stable.”

She conceded, though, “It does make it more difficult.”

This May, Guilderland, which has 12,378 properties, had 116 grievances, VanWagenen said; 24 of those were for commercial properties, and four of those withdrew.

William Meehan, chairman of the five-member Guilderland Board of Assessment Review, estimated that “possibly 10 percent” of those who grieved were given reductions.

Across the state, the fourth Tuesday of every May is designated Grievance Day, when property owners can contest the values assigned to their properties.

One of the property owners in Guilderland who grieved this May was Melanie Shatynski. She wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week about the problems she experienced.

While both Meehan and VanWagenen said they could not comment on any specific case, both were willing to answer concerns in general terms.

Shatynski was frustrated that, although a state website had indicated taxpayers could share concerns with their assessor, Shatynski says she was told by the Guilderland assessor’s office that the assessor would not talk to a homeowner.

VanWagenen responded that, in recent years, her staff had been cut by more than half. “There are three assessment clerks and me; we used to be eight or eight-and-a-half,” she said.

VanWagenen said this makes having conversations with property owners difficult, especially as deadlines approach. “There’s just not time in the day,” she said.

However, she went on, “We run informals.”

She explained, “We have a form homeowners can fill out with whatever data, showing the value should be different….They can submit any time before April 1.”

VanWagenen then reviews the forms and looks up appropriate data to make a decision. “We send out letters by the end of April,” she said.

If a property owner disagrees with VanWagenen’s decision, the owner can then take his or her case before the Board of Assessment review. “I give them what I have, and the homeowners give what they have,” she said, describing the grieving process.

Meehan said his board schedules 10-minute intervals on Grievance Day to hear each case. “We listen to the arguments of the people who are grieving,” he said, adding,  “Some people just submit paperwork. Fifty to 60 people actually showed up on Grievance Day.”

Meehan went on, “We don’t make a decision right away. This year, we met for two subsequent days.” The decision is then mailed out in a letter to the property owner.

Shatynski said that her home’s value was not reduced and the explanation given in the letter from the Board of Assessment Review said, “The proof of value you presented was inadequate because the supporting data was insufficient.” Shatynski became frustrated because, she says, when she called the assessor to find out what information the board was looking for, she was told the assessor plays no role in the grievance process.

When Meehan was asked the meaning of the quoted sentence, he said, “What that means is their comparables were not sufficient to justify a reduction.”

Asked what next step the homeowners could take to resolve the issue, he said, “They can go to small claims court.”

Shatynski said that is what they will do.

Meehan also said of the assessor, if she is approached when she has time, “Karen will be very straightforward about what kind of information they need to bring, what kind of comparables.”

He also said of his board, “We don’t always know what the purchase price means. Is it truly reflective of what’s going on in that market in that neighborhood — or not?”

Meehan, who is retired from a career as an economist for the state of New York, said that several members of his board have a background in real estate.

On the state-set equalization rate, he said, “Obviously, if everything were at 100 percent, it would help our job.”

But he also said, “In one year, it could be off again.” He concluded, “It’s very expensive.”

VanWagenen agreed. She cited at town in central New York that recently completed revaluation at $60 per parcel. Calling the state support “minimal,” she said it hasn’t kept up with the cost of revaluing properties.

She also said, referring to the state-set levy limit, “With the 2-percent cap, there’s no way the town could pay for this without violating the cap. We would lose aid and STAR rebates would not happen,” she said of School Tax Relief.

Gloak with the Office of Real Property Tax Services said that the state, as part of its Aid for Cyclical Reassessments program, has $750,000 allotted each year. “You can get up to $5 per parcel,” he said. “You need to commit to updating at least every four years.”

He also said, “The actual cost has always been a lot more. State aid was never meant to fully cover the cost. It’s there as an incentive.”

“In 2005, we had a larger staff and did the residential portion ourselves,” VanWagenen said of revaluation. “There’s no way we could do it in-house now.”

She said of the reduced staff meeting just everyday duties, “We are pushing it, but we manage.”

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