Schenectady County

Schenectady residents bracing for assessment battles

It has been nine months since 500 city residents stood in line all day — and through the evening — t

It has been nine months since 500 city residents stood in line all day — and through the evening — to grieve their property assessments.

Most of them lost their fight. But they haven’t given up. Already, many of them are preparing for Round 2 on May 25.

In one indication of a large Grievance Day, 28 residents have already hired Armstrong Appraisals to help them fight what they considered to be unfairly high assessments. And appraiser David Fontana has turned away dozens more who want to fight their assessments but do not, in his opinion, have a strong chance of winning.

At this time last year, just two residents had hired that company. By the time Grievance Day rolled around on the fourth Tuesday in May, Armstrong Appraisals was working with 79 residents.

The main difference is that this year, many assessments seem correct, Fontana said. More than 100 assessments were changed after Grievance Day.

“Last year I took 75 percent of the people who came to me. This year I’m turning away 50 percent of them,” he said, explaining that he looks at each resident’s assessment before agreeing to take their case.

“I think everybody is just in a recessionary bind and saying, ‘I can’t pay these taxes,’ ” he said.

He is advertising that he can help, telling prospective customers that all but six of his 79 clients got assessment reductions last year.

City officials challenged that claim but could not provide records showing how many grievances were granted or rejected. The city’s Board of Assessment Review granted just 68 grievances out of 1,075 filed. Most property owners accepted that decision, but 176 residents took their grievance to small claims court.

All of those have been decided, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.

“We won some. There were compromises in some. We didn’t win some,” he said. “That’s the way the process goes.”

He is also defending the city against 238 tax appeals, which are filed by those who do not live at the property in question. Most of those properties are commercial. Of those appeals, 140 have not yet been decided.

More cases will be added to that docket. Van Norden has taken the unusual step of appealing some small claims court decisions.

“Because they’re wrong,” he said, adding that his staff picked the ones “that are most glaringly wrong.”

The city also took the rare step of sending an attorney to every small claims case.

Van Norden acknowledged that fighting in small claims court and then appealing those decisions is highly unusual but said it was important to insist that hearing officers follow state laws.

“The city is not going to simply stand by,” Van Norden said.

He cited one decision in which a hearing officer decided to reduce an assessment despite the existence of a very recent arm’s-length sale that supported the assessment.

“That’s simply unconscionable,” Van Norden said.

Assessments are intended to indicate what the property’s market price would be if a stranger bought it, called an “arm’s-length sale.” Recent sales of that sort are often used to either defend the assessment or, if the sales are lower than the assessment, argue that the assessment should be reduced.

“Under the law, arm’s-length sales, that’s the most important factor to consider,” Van Norden said. “We are of course going to challenge it. We have a right to protect the 22,000 property owners who did not grieve their taxes because the purpose of the assessment is to apportion the tax fairly.”

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