“The best way to make sure that our whole county enjoys the benefits of 100 percent assessment with a low COD [coefficient of dispersion] is through use of a well-funded county assessing unit. This is the consolidation step that most needs to be taken. We’d still need the current assessors; the savings would come from the economy of scale that would obtain whenever an updated countywide reassessment is deemed necessary.”
— EDR Sunday Gazette op ed of 7/11/2004
“If ever a service provided by local government was a logical candidate for consolidation with other governments, it is in the area of real property assessment.”
— Sunday Gazette editorial of 3/23/2008
Since my op ed piece of almost four years ago, great progress has been made with regard to uniformity of assessment practices, though not consolidation thereof, in Schenectady County. In that essay, still online (click here to view), I expressed concern that Rotterdam might not opt for 100 percent valuation in its imminent property revaluation. But to the credit of its current Town Board, it did, and by now, all of the large units of the county are trying to keep their rolls at 100 percent, the only truly understandable rate, and one that does not affect the actual real estate taxes that their residents pay.
Assessment by counties rather than by their constituent municipalities is the norm in most other states, but certainly not here in New York, where only two of our 62 counties do so — Nassau on Long Island and Tompkins in the Finger Lakes region. Countywide assessment involves complete consolidation of the assessment function at the county level, with elimination of municipal assessing units and assessment rolls. Implementation requires a corresponding county-wide referendum, one called through action of a county legislature. In counties such as Schenectady, having multiple towns but only one city, two separate majorities are required, one for the residents of our five towns, collectively and not individually, and another for the residents of the City of Schenectady.
Though former Gov. Eliot Spitzer strongly supported consolidation and provided grant support to counties willing to consider the reform, the New York State Assessors Association Inc., continues to oppose the change (view documentation here);. And even though consolidated assessment would cost less than the aggregate sum of what a county’s constituent municipalities are currently paying, cash-strapped counties are reluctant to assume an added burden that would raise their own tax rates. Unless a formula could be agreed upon to pro-rate the cost back to its satellites — so much per parcel, perhaps — a legislature may not be inclined to support the needed referendum.
Currently, when town residents fail to pay January taxes or September school taxes, their county makes the town or school district whole by accepting less than their full levy. Back taxes are then paid, with penalty, to the county, and it is the county that will ultimately take title to properties that remain delinquent for some extended statutory period. Not so for city residents, however. The city has to get along without delinquent taxes, but then gets to take possession in due course if they are not paid. I don’t know why cities prefer things this way, but apparently they are reluctant to seek the legislative initiative that would change things. But if assessment is consolidated, I assume that the differing collection and property appropriation practices would have to be also.
One final reservation: A town or city can be hurt very badly if a large ratable receives a substantial reduction in assessment through legal action. Suppose, for example, that a municipality’s largest commercial business has an assessment that is, say, 20 percent of its entire levy, and the petition is made that it be halved. This would entail loss of 10 percent of the value of the entire roll, but, perhaps, only 2 percent of the county’s tax roll. Which would fight harder to defend against the reduction, the town or the county? Well, the town, of course, but on the other hand, the county would have the greater resources to mount a successful defense.
None of all this should be read to mean that I have lost the zest for assessment consolidation. But I thought it would be useful to explain why, after years of discussion, only two of our counties have succeeded in the endeavor.
Edwin D. Reilly Jr. lives in Niskayuna. He is former supervisor of that town and a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion page.