–by Barrett Seaman
More than 100 homeowners filled every seat and lined the walls of the Irvington Senior Center meeting room Tuesday evening, while police turned almost as many away because of potential fire code violations. They were all there to hear Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner and Assessor Edye McCarthy explain how so many had seen their projected property taxes go up—in some cases by over 100 percent—after a recent reassessment by Tyler Technologies, the Rhode Island company hired by Greenburgh to do its first reassessment in 60 years.
The mood was somber, even a bit tense, but civil, as Irvington Mayor Brian Smith introduced the pair. “After 60 years, there’s going to be a lot of pain,” said Smith, “but there shouldn’t be confusion.”
After more than two-and-a-half hours of explanation—mostly by Assessor McCarthy—and questions from citizens, many who attended felt they had learned something about the process, if not a clearer understanding of the methodology behind the calculations.
Feiner, whom Mayor Smith praised for having the courage to launch a reassessment when others had assiduously avoided it for so long, offered a lengthy history of the project, going back to 2009, when he said, “a lot of people were very critical of the Town and me in particular for not reassessing.” There were a lot of inequities and uncertainty as many who felt over-taxed filed successful certioraris, making it very difficult for government and school districts to budget accurately. “We were losing up to $10 million a year in certioraris,” he said.
“People, up to a few weeks ago, “were pleased that we were doing this.”
Assessor McCarthy bore the brunt of the workload Tuesday, presenting a virtual symposium on local taxation and a calendar going forward on steps homeowners can take to appeal their Tyler assessments.
The deadline for making an appointment with a Tyler representative for an informal review is this Friday, April 8. The last such meeting will take place May 7th.
McCarthy’s office will then incorporate whatever adjustment Tyler accepts by June 1st, a state-imposed deadline. “You will hear in the first week in June whether Tyler adjusted your assessment,” she said. “Then you have until June 21st—at 9:00pm—to file a grievance.” By October, all remaining grievances will have been adjudicated, after which property taxes for the year 2017 will be set, based on 100% valuation. Adjustments will then be made annually and reassessments conducted every five years going forward.
Many of the remarks by McCarthy and Feiner were prompted by questions posed and accusations made in emails, press accounts and on social media—particularly Facebook, where a “Greenburgh Residents for Fair Taxation” page had been created. Among the issues:
Who selected Tyler, how, and are they competent to evaluate Greenburgh?
Tyler, said McCarthy, was “not only the lowest bidder but the most viable contractor” of the five companies that bid for the job in a by-the-book RFP (Request for Proposals) process. Greenburgh also chose another company, Haberman & Associates, to monitor Tyler’s work.
What does Tyler’s assessment intended to represent?
“Simply put,” said McCarthy, “it’s what you can sell your property for.” Both she and Feiner took pains to explain why co-operatives and condominiums were taxed on a different basis—not on their market value but as commercial entities based on their income potential, a formula that yields tax levels roughly half of what residential owners pay for similarly sized homes. Feiner has been widely criticized for a recent Greenburgh Town Council vote against adopted the so-called Homestead Act, which would have put all commercial properties on the same tax basis as residences. Feiner’s position is that doing so would have driven many businesses out of the Town; he also says he agrees that condos and co-ops should be taxed as a separate category from other commercial enterprises and has so recommended to the state legislature—but it’s out of his hands.
With an 18% net increase in values, the highest of the ten school districts, Irvington is taking the brunt of re-assessment, with neighboring Dobbs Ferry and Hastings close behind. Isn’t that simply shifting the rest of the Town’s tax burden onto the Town’s wealthiest areas?
McCarthy replied that the taxes are based strictly on the budgets of the entities within the village itself—schools carrying 65% of the weight, with the villages at 20%. Westchester County accounts for 13% and the Town 2%. The shift is entirely within the district, she maintained. If Irvington residents have higher tax bills, it is because their village and school budgets are higher per-capita, she said. “Your money is not going any place else.”
What if, as is rumored, there are class action suits filed?
McCarthy stated that 90% of the state’s municipalities follow the exact same procedure followed by Greenburgh, suggesting that there was therefore no legal basis for a class action suit.
If assessments are supposed to approximate real market values, why were the values assigned to so many homes that sold recently still assigned values that were significantly different?
By state law, said McCarthy, the cut-off date for using sales data was July 1, 2015. The sales prices of homes sold since then are not reflected in the assessments, but they can be introduced as evidence in the appeals process.
Why was land in many parts of the village assessed at such high prices, and why was there so much variation in land valuations?
On this point, McCarthy conceded that some vacant land “might have been a little bit over-valued” by Tyler on the assumption that it is buildable when for various reasons it isn’t. If owners can prove that extra land cannot be developed (or agree to merge it with land that is already built), then the Town will consider lowering the valuations.
She also revealed that Tyler, with the assistance of local realtors, created “neighborhood delineations” that valued land according to the perceived desirability of neighborhoods—street by street. Homes on land west of Broadway, closer to the Hudson River, were assigned higher land values than otherwise similar properties inland, for example. Homes situated on busy thoroughfares were assigned lower values than those on quiet side streets—adding to the complexity of Tyler’s valuation algorithm.
While most present at the meeting felt they had been over-assessed, what was being done to identify the properties that had been under-assessed?
This question, posed by resident Brian Friedman, prompted McCarthy to reveal that some Greenburgh homeowners had indeed identified other properties they thought had gotten away with significant under-valuations. Others are showing up as statistical anomalies. “We’re looking at them as we speak,” she said, raising a stir in the room.
But she also noted that New York State law forbids them from revising an assessment based on a recent sale within the time frame of the re-assessment. “You cannot sales-chase,” she said. If a property turns out to have been significantly undervalued, it will not be reflected until the next adjustment.
A number of questions stemmed from confusion in interpreting the numbers as they were presented in the Assessment Disclosure Notices that were sent out in late March. The projected tax figure on the notice, she said, reflected what you would have paid in 2015 “if, if’ if the newest estimates were in place when we levied the taxes” and not (necessarily) what you will pay in 2017. As for the opacity of Tyler’s methodology, McCarthy demurred: “Please don’t call me and ask me to interpret it, because if I could we wouldn’t have hired Tyler to do it.”
Others sought clarification on whether those appealing their re-assessments have access to the Property Assessment Record Cards that contain the underlying assumptions about a given piece of property. Some reported being told by a Tyler representative than they could not see them, but McCarthy stated that these were public documents that Tyler reps should willingly provide.
For those intending to appeal, McCarthy suggested that they bring with them any and all proof that Tyler got it wrong when they assessed—photos, recent appraisals, or evidence that comparable properties used by Tyler were not really comparable.
Not nearly as easy to answer as the procedural questions were those about the impact of the re-assessment on the fabric of Irvington as a community. Village resident Laurie Regan stood to say “I think this is going to have a tremendous impact on our town—on empty nesters, on our schools.” Reflecting an economic reality, she observed: “We’re not only paying higher taxes, but our property values will decrease” as a result.
Spiro Park resident Michael Bradley, reporting that his entire neighborhood saw increases of 20% overall, said: “After 60 years, you’re creating havoc by introducing this all at once.” Those on fixed incomes, residents of long standing, are thinking they will have to sell to survive financially. “It does not appear that you have properly anticipated the problems that will arise.”
In response, Feiner allowed that he had explored the idea of spreading the increase over five years but concluded that it wouldn’t work. “Our goal,” he said, without offering anything more specific, “is to come up with the best mitigation we can.”