Property tax reassessment is about fairness, not raising taxes.
That was the overwhelming message at a forum called "Reassessing Property in Westchester: Fair or Foul?" Thursday, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westchester and the League of Women Voters of New Rochelle.
Yonkers Assessor Mark Russell reminded the audience in the New Rochelle City Hall Council Chambers that the inception of the United States was based on a tax problem.
"You can't complain to the IRS," he said. "You can't challenge the amount of sales tax.
"The property tax is the only tax that can be challenged," Russell said. "Because of that it should be as accurate as possible."
Russell was joined on the panel by local officials whose municipalities either had undertaken a property reevaluation or were in the process of doing so. They were Pelham Town Assessor Michele Casandra, Bronxville Administrator Harold Porr III, Rye Town Assessor Mitchell Markowitz and Greenburgh Assessor Edye McCarthy. Also on the panel were John Wolham, regional director, southern region, state Office of Real Property Tax Services, and George Oros, chief of staff to Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.
Casandra said that the Town of Pelham did a reassessment in 1998, and in doing so was the first community in the county to undertake a revaluation in recent years.
The last time Pelham's properties were reassessed was in 1971.
"We found ourselves pretty much in a similar climate as what is happening today," Casandra said, with an increase in property tax challenges.
"Our assessments were not defensible," she said, and the town was paying out lots of refunds.
Around 1995, Casandra said there was a change in the town board and the new superintendent took an interest in reevaluating properties.
"They realized the only thing we could do was a reassessment," she said.
The new tax roll was put into place in 1998, and with the exception of 1999, Pelham has done an annual reassessment every year since.
Casandra said now the tax challenges are not significant and the assessments make sense.
"It's been successful," she said.
The City of Yonkers, according to Assessor Russell, is closer than ever to reassessing its properties.
"The last time there was a reevaluation was in 1954," he said, adding that a loaf of bread was 17 cents then and a gallon of gas was 21 cents.
Russell said his office has been modernizing all its records, making sure deeds are correct and getting everything online so the public can access them.
"Anything that can be utilized for revaluation has to be available to the public," he said. "Fairness has to be job one."
Russell said he was hoping to get New Rochelle to participate in the reassessment process. The cost per parcel can go down when vendors have larger numbers of properties to work with.
City Manager Charles Strome III said New Rochelle was last reassessed in the 1950s.
As a professional, he believes that a reassessment would bring tax fairness to homeowners.
"But it is ultimately a political decision," Strome said.
In Bronxville, properties are currently assessed at full value, said Villiage Administrator Porr, and property records are digitized.
The result of being at full valuation, he said, was that grievances are down substantially and the village is facing fewer property tax challenges each year.
Porr said the village realized the need to do a revaluation after a study found that their error rate was around 20 percent and some assessments were as much as seven times higher or lower than they should have been.
He said the key to their success in the reassessment program was a full-blown public relations program, with the mayor writing several articles, having frequently asked questions online and getting the real estate professionals in the community on board.
"You have to create trust in the community," Porr said, "and you have to emphasize transparency."
He said at the end the company doing the assessments was able to get into 90 of the village's properties.
Were there political consequences to doing the reevaluations?
"The mayor was re-elected the following year," Porr said.