BROCTON - Potentially in the midst of a lawsuit to challenge last year's equalization rate, the Portland Town Council moved to maintain the services of its current assessor Dea Anna Wheeler, to a part time, six year term.
Members from Concerned Residents of Portland, who have been working feverishly with town officials as an independent group of citizens to unearth the reasons for how the state sets the town's equalization rate and how to avoid the odd flux that caused their school taxes to go haywire, met with council members on Aug. 1 to discuss the assessor's reappointment. In their quest for answers regarding the equalization rate issue, members of the group have alleged that Wheeler has provided inaccurate or false information to the state as part of the calculation process to set the rate; being abrupt toward them; not having the foresight to predict what would happen to the equalization rate; and doing "spot revaluations" of individual properties, among other allegations. The group learned this week that their recent appeal of the rate has been rejected, but is now urging town leaders to force a lawsuit that could have favorable results.
The purpose of the workshop was for the council to hear suggestions on how the assessor could be better managed and to suggest what job duties or functions could be added to her job duties to address some of the issues the group has complained about and experienced.
Because the function of an assessor is managed through the New York State Office of Real Property Tax Services, Town Attorney Charles Loveland determined that in fact, there is no way to add to her job description or force her to perform any duties beyond what she is presently responsible for.
According to Town Supervisor, Dan Schrantz, what did come out of the workshop was a customer friendly solution of adding a "frequently asked question" style of information tool to the town's website, which is scheduled to be revamped this year. This would allow for better outsourcing of information to property owners about what may or may not positively or negatively affect their property values. The council intends to also institute a grievance process by means of a complaint form, which would be used across the board for all town departments and which would allow for timely reporting of complaints to town leadership with traceable means of tracking the complaint for accountability.
In a written statement from Betty DeLand, school business executive for Brocton Central School responding to a recent editorial published on the situation, she noted "You are unfairly blaming the tax assessor for the change in equalization rate. The state of New York is to blame for the large drop and is being challenged. As far as Ms. Wheeler's job, she is trying to do a full-time job working part-time. It is basically impossible for an assessor to do a job for any town working part time. To prevent this change, the town needs to either drop its assessed value so low that the state can't change it or bring everything up to 100 percent with a revaluation."
Loveland and Schrantz both pointed out at Wednesday's meeting that approximately 18 years ago, the town resolved to make the assessor position a part-time job function, after being promised by New York state that a computer-generated program would allow for valuation to stay at 100 percent, in effect reducing the need for an assessor to perform the same function. At that time, noted the supervisor, "the town had a full-time assessor, and that person also utilized a part-time clerk in her office. And as for the computer program - we can all see what happened with that."
Limitations on term requirements set forth by the state also negated the suggestion that Wheeler be appointed to a two-year term, at which time she could be reevaluated for effectiveness before another appointment. State officials deemed the office a six-year term position, noted Loveland, "to avoid a specific board of leaders being able to unfairly influence an assessor's outcomes on property values."
Wheeler's term will commence on Oct. 1 of this year and will expire on Sept. 30, 2019. Schrantz added that she will continue her regular work schedule for the town of Portland, which consists of one full day of in-house office work, and one day in which she takes appointments and does outside field work as her job requires.