BROCTON - After a lengthy public meeting last week called by Town of Portland leaders to clarify the equalization rate process, it seems one fact remains unchanged: the system is a broken one - especially concerning how it affects townships, school districts and taxpayers.
Portland Town Supervisor Dan Schrantz opened the meeting by noting there is no state mandate that requires his town to do a re-valuation, which he estimated to be an additional cost to the town of $60,000 to $70,000.
While the town hasn't had a full re-valuation in last 20 years, according to the supervisor, he still isn't convinced that his township had significantly more growth than neighboring Pomfret, whose equalization rate is at 20 percent compared to Portland's 54 percent.
Heading toward year seven with a zero percent tax increase, which he credits to efforts by his council and department leaders, the supervisor is skeptical when it comes to tacking on additional costs.
"We work very hard as a board to keep a zero tax increase, and a lot of that is hard to do. The town board cuts where we can without the state telling us to put a 2 percent cap on things. The help we have now is a million dollars in new assessed valuation; that's why we can hold the line. But the scary part with a re-valuation is the lake front development is fine at this point, after a re-valuation, will it be? Where we stand as a town board right now is in a big dilemma. Everyone keeps telling me a re-val is the correct action to take, but is it?"
Brocton Central School District Business Manager Betty Deland explained the school district's use of the rate and added, "By the time the budget vote takes place, we don't know the tax rate will be. All we can tell you is the tax levy."
With the equalization rate not being in place in time for voters in the district to pull the lever for or against the school budget, the effects of the equalization rate remain elusive until the school tax bill envelope is opened.
"Our budgets have to be finalized by March 1. We need to know this information before March 1, otherwise we're just guessing," stated Deland.
Bob Wright, customer relations manager for the state Tax and Finance Department, attempted to give his best explanation of how equalization rates are set.
"The equalization rate isn't easy to understand. A lot of calculations go into it," he explained.
Tom Webb, a Portland taxpayer along with many others, is trying to get answers to how the town's rate was set and put his and others' taxes into a tailspin.
"I'd like to congratulate New York state for making this process so complicated that the common folk are not able to understand it," he said.
He and a frustrated and concerned group of residents in the town have been conducting their own research in an effort to understand the anomaly that took place with their taxes, including requesting relevant data turned over to the state by town Assessor Deanna Wheeler through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Questions still remain with the group as to why the state used certain sample figures in the tabulation.
Webb later commented on the situation as "taxation without representation. This is the stuff revolutions were made of hundreds of years ago. We're also now known as the highest taxing state in the union - what a wonderful mile marker to have achieved."
Concerned taxpayer Bill Ploetz agreed.
"We have got to fix this process in the meantime. The assessor does have a stake in this (a potential re-valuation) and there is a vested interest. The equalization rate has to be working right and I question the process of determining it."
"I have a stake in doing my job correctly," replied Wheeler.
After Wright replied to a question whether all mathematical data used in the tabulation is subject to a FOIL request that "some are working figures and don't have to be released," Portland resident Mark Rand described the state's process in setting the equalization rate as "not very transparent."
"This figure is determining our tax rate, that's a right, not a privilege to see that information. I would like to see the basis of how it's determined. And what if it's wrong? At that point, I'm assuming it's not an assessor issue, but a New York state issue. All pieces of what went into that calculation should be available," he said.
Josh Ehmke, a business owner who also specializes in buying distressed properties, spoke on behalf of taxpayers too.
"How do we fix this from here? Who makes these hard decisions?" asked Ehmke.
Wright replied that as the public, homeowners should make every attempt to be sure their valuations of their property are neutral.
"If properties are supposed to be equal across the board, that's fictional at this point. When tax increases drive people away, I don't care if you're living on the lake, up on the hill, you won't have anyone left here when you overburden people. I have to make hard decisions for my family, but when all of this is passed onto people and then you say 'here's some more,' what's the last straw for them? I buy houses that are distressed, and people call me all the time asking me to buy their homes. I agree with you that everyone should share in the costs for roads, schools, but if something doesn't change, we're on a fast track to disaster. I think everyone here is willing to carry their share, but who's going to be left if you ask them to keep carrying more?"
Portland resident David Foley, who is also the county's district attorney, built on that idea.
"Who would come in and willingly purchase a home with a $15,000 tax bill? And do we want to promote out-of-state buyers coming in and buying up lakefront property when people who live here and work here can't afford to?"
County Tax Director Jim Caflisch addressed the audience and the board by saying, "What I'm hearing tonight is that there's a lot of fear about a possible re-valuation. And I don't think you have anything to fear."
"Albany has done a terrible job in maintaining costs. We live in the most highly regulated state in the country and we aren't business friendly. We're spiraling downhill, and Albany won't help us. But unless New York state adopts a different form of assessing the law is the law. And we're charged to enforce that law," stated Caflisch.
He also added, "When people like (politicians) Andrew Goodell, Catharine Young, the governor come around, we need to be looking at them maybe they can tell us what to do from here."
Rand summarized the close of the meeting.
"I think the issue we're in is whether or not we should go through with a re-val and take the pain in the process. Time will make the decision for us if we don't make the decision ourselves. We need to make a conscious decision about what we're going to do."
The town supervisor agreed, adding, "That's what it does come down to."
Schrantz thanked those who attended and added if additional meetings and sit-downs are needed as the issue develops, he is willing to take part.