ELIZABETHTOWN — Real Property Tax director Bernie Miller recently pleaded with town supervisors during a meeting to approve a $25,000 state grant to fund a study of the county’s assessment practices. The grant, which was ultimately approved, sparked a lively debate on what some feel is a flawed state system threatening to erode municipal independence.
The state-administered assessment study would bring in an expert of the state’s choosing to evaluate Essex County’s assessment methodology and advise on ways to bring it closer to the state’s goal of a county-wide assessment program.
Moriah town Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava, said the grant is bait designed to lure towns away from the role of assessing real property and ultimately abolishing local assessors. Scozzafava said the state determines equalization rates (an attempt to bring all property to what they deem full assessed value) using a system that no one understands. He also claims the Adirondacks are a unique area that requires a highly localized approach to assessing real property.
“The main problem is that in the Adirondacks, when the state comes up with assessments, they compare neighboring communities.”
Scozzafava argued that the state’s equalization rates are inaccurate since there are large discrepancies between neighboring real estate markets. If there are not enough sales in one area, he said, sales in neighboring communities may be added to beef up the state’s data. This has a tendency to artificially inflate assessments for Moriah and many other regions in the Adirondacks, according to Scozzafava.
Another characteristic of the Adirondacks is a relatively thin private sector. This creates a larger residential tax burden.
“58 percent of the tax-roll is residential. That is very high,” Scozzafava said.
Finally, Scozzafava claimed that relying on development to offset the growing tax burden is failing since building and development in the Adirondack Park is hampered by heavy regulation.
Elizabethtown town Supervisor Noel Merrihew, said that the problem is not in the system being used to assess property, but in the state’s reliance on the use of real estate taxes to raise revenues.
“The real estate tax is an unfair and archaic system based on a time when only men and the wealthy owned property,” Merrihew said.
The basis for tax revenue, according to Merrihew, should be derived from income, not the perceived value of residential property.
Merrihew said that Essex County already has what he calls a very fair, semi-countywide assessment program in which town assessors share data with the county based on real estate sales in their community. The county plugs that data into a state provided computer model to bring other properties in that area to their full assessment value. Towns are not required to use the new assessment calculations, however, state aid may be restricted to that area if the town does not comply.
The big assessment increases are in lake-front property, according to Merrihew, up 25 to 30 percent in the last few years compared to six or eight percent for residential property. Not surprisingly, the most vocal opposition to full assessment comes from owners of lake front property, Merrihew said. This may pressure municipalities to keep lake front properties below full assessment, but since the state can restrict aid, it allows the state to bargain with municipalities to fully assess lakefront homes rather than shift the burden on to other residential properties. Therefore, Merrihew contends that it actually helps keep the system fair.
“If done right, and when taking into account new development and adjustments for inflation, the total tax revenue coming in should remain level or decrease,” Merrihew said.
This has been true in Elizabethtown, he added.
The state grant money gives the county the opportunity to continue to improve the way it assesses property, he said.
Still, Scozzafava said he will be inviting the state to visit with the board to explain how they come up with their rates.
“I’d like to see if we can take that $25,000 and use it to study the state’s methods,” Scozzafava said.
Contact George Earl at 891-2600 or gearl