Guilderland tax revolt: Residents outraged over tax increase due to state-set rate

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Guilderland residents line up at a crowded meeting Tuesday night to ask questions of the town board about the new state-set equalization rate that has school-tax bills rising by as much as 19 percent. The room broke into applause when Ernie Kitchen, waiting to speak, in the yellow cap, asked the board, “How do you stop the state from saying that properties are worth something they’re not worth?”

GUILDERLAND — More than 100 angry and frustrated residents turned out at Guilderland’s Town Board meeting Tuesday night to ask the board for help in fighting their tax bills that have gone up by hundreds of dollars or more since last year, as a result of the new state-set equalization rate.

Supervisor Peter Barber called the state’s system “corrupt” and “crappy.”

Guilderland, which used to conduct townwide revaluations every four or five years since moving to full-value assessment in 1980, hasn’t done so since 2005.

Barber plans to ask the town board to vote, at its Oct. 4 meeting, to begin townwide revaluation, although this is a lengthy process and will not affect taxes until 2019.

For 2018, Barber said, a special equalization rate can be enacted for a segmented town; the application for that needs to be in by March, he said. “In 2018, we have redress,” he said. “My hope is we’ll have a comparable reduction.”

For this year, the town appealed its rate before the New York State Office of Real Property Tax Services Board, arguing that its methods of assessing were unfair.

Since the panel gave Guilderland little remedy, Barber said, there is nothing residents can do to lower the school-tax bills that were mailed out recently and that are due in early October.

“We can’t unring the bell, can’t undo the tax bills sent out by the schools,” Barber said.

Residents and business owners are angry that the new equalization rate for Guilderland means that school-tax rates for Guilderland property owners in the Voorheesville School District rose this year almost 12 percent. Guilderland residents in the Mohonasen School District saw their rates go up close to 19 percent; in Schalmont, almost 17 percent; in South Colonie, over 12 percent. In the Guilderland district, the rate change was up 1.6 percent while residents of other towns in the district saw dramatic decreases.

Laurence Farbstein, president of Industrial & Utility Valuation Consultants, hired by the town to make its case, explained at the town board meeting that the problem stemmed from the sample of commercial properties that ORPTS used, which Farbstein told residents “virtually ensured that high-priced properties would be weighted more than the low-priced ones.” The sample discussed at the hearing was of five properties: Stuyvesant Plaza, the Hampton Inn, and three apartment complexes. But that’s not Guilderland, Farbstein, said. He said that the state could have used a small business, a gas station, and a warehouse, if they wanted to more fairly represent the town.

“The only reason they didn’t use Crossgates,” Farbstein told residents, “was apparently Crossgates wouldn’t give them any information.”

“Good for them!” someone in the crowd yelled.

Ernie Kitchen, a resident of the Weatherfield development in the Voorheesville School District, said that he had been giving himself a “crash course” in the equalization rate for the last 10 days, since opening his tax bill. He said that it’s possible for a Guilderland resident to challenge what the town says a property is worth, but that no such opportunity is afforded to residents by the state, and asked, “How do you stop the state from saying that properties are worth something they’re not worth?”

Several residents including Vince Crisafulli demanded that the town board begin to brainstorm some creative ideas. Crisafulli suggested that the town “reassess Weatherfield tomorrow,” or that the town give the Weatherfield residents the amount of the increase back in January, and then worry about getting it back from the state.

Resident William Young is the chairman of Guilderland’s Industrial Development Agency. He is a partner with Young, Fenton, Kelsey & Brown, a law firm with offices in the old Price Chopper building at 1881 Western Ave. He said that that building is “about a third empty” and should have been used in the sample.

In response to Young, Farbstein said, “They told us we could only argue the value of the properties they chose. We couldn’t argue about what they chose.”

Next May, residents can grieve their assessments before the town’s Board of Assessment Review, said Barber.

Carol Huber of Weatherfield asked whether it would be possible to go back to the Voorheesville School District and say that, when residents voted for the budget, they thought they would be paying only a certain amount, and ask to rejigger the budget now.

Barber said that the Guilderland School District had, when it learned about the reset equalization rate, taken $300,000 out of its excess funds and used it to ensure that it would not need to raise taxes any higher than the 1.6 percent promised to voters. His wife, Catherine Barber, is a school board member. He said he had asked the Voorheesville School District officials if they could not do the same thing, but said that he was still waiting for an answer.

The Voorheesville district differs from the Guilderland school district in two key aspects, said Voorheesville’s superintendent, Brian Hunt.  “We are much smaller, and the majority of our taxpayers are in the Town of New Scotland,” he wrote to The Enterprise in an email.

“If we had used additional fund balance to lower the tax levy, three-quarters of the reduction would go to New Scotland taxpayers because they represent three-quarters of the taxable property value,” Hunt said. “This is due to the respective equalization rates for the two towns, which fixes the percentages of taxable value that is owed collectively by all of the taxpayers in each town.

“Because we are much smaller than Guilderland, a proportional amount of fund balance used would be much smaller, and three-quarters of the benefit would necessarily go to New Scotland taxpayers due to the equalization rates of each town.  New Scotland taxpayers would have gotten a tax cut somewhat greater than the 2-percent reduction they received, and the benefit to our Guilderland taxpayers would have been negligible.”

Hunt went on, “Of course, the Guilderland School District has the vast majority of its taxable property in the Town of Guilderland, which allows the benefit to go primarily to Guilderland taxpayers. We simply can't make that happen due to the equalization rates.”

Hunt concluded, “The solution to this problem is the course that I understand the Town of Guilderland will be taking, which is to do a revaluation of the entire town. I know that will be a challenging and time-consuming process, but it is the right thing to do for taxpayers and will share the tax burden equitably.”

Someone in the crowd at Tuesday’s meeting asked if it would be possible for the town to sue the state.

Farbstein said that it would be possible, but it would end quickly, in the state’s favor. “The only way you could sue would be to say they acted capriciously and arbitrarily,” he said. “All the board would have to argue was that they treated Guilderland as they have treated other municipalities.”

At the Aug. 23 hearing, Paul Miller, director of Regional Service for the Office of Real Property Tax Service, said that, of the 985 places surveyed by the state, equalization rates were set at the same level the locality had named in 97 percent of the cases. Guilderland was among 3 percent that had problems.

Barber also said he would be willing to set up meetings with a group of town residents from Voorheesville or Rotterdam who are paying disproportionately more, to keep them apprised of how the town’s efforts to address this situation are going.

Farbstein said that ORPTS needs to change its rules for how it chooses properties to sample, so that it more accurately reflects the distribution of properties. It could decide to change it itself, he said. The governor could order it to do it. Or the politicians representing Guilderland in the state assembly and senate — Patricia Fahy and George Amedore — could work to change the law.

Farbstein said that Guilderland residents will show up as wealthier in 2018 than they did in 2017, when county taxes are calculated, although he said that this change would be spread over more residents and the impact would be less than with the school taxes. Since fire districts are not confined to Guilderland, those taxes will also be affected, he said.

Eventually, after more than an hour, the board moved on to the other items on its agenda, mostly appointments, and the room emptied out. One item was to appoint Nicole Ventresca-Cohen as a full member and Patricia McArdle and Teresa Freeman as alternates to the Board of Assessment Review.

Barber quipped from the podium, “I’m not sure if people are going to want to serve after this!”

 

More Guilderland News