ITHACA, NY – Recently, The Voice has seen a few concerns and complaints about high property value assessments, so we thought it might be time to revisit the confusing relationship between property taxes, tax rates and assessments.

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Tompkins Director of Assessment Jay Franklin says he’s gotten used to getting complaints about assessment increases.

“You can’t complain to the IRS about your income taxes.  You can’t complain to the clerk at Target about your sales taxes.  But, when my office holds meetings about the assessment – there is someone that the property owner can complain to,” he said in an email.

“Unfortunately, the property owner will get agreement from everyone in my office that property taxes are too high but the reasons behind it are out of our control,” Franklin added.

So what does assessment actually mean for your tax bill?

The short version is, it’s all relative. The assessment value of your property can go up or down, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your property taxes will actually go in the same direction.

While you can make some limited assumptions about how your assessment will affect the end-result taxes you pay, it’s impossible to know the exact impact until the county, city, towns and school districts lay out their budgets later this year.

Now for the longer slightly longer version:

What property assessment actually is is a reflection of how big of a share of the total tax burden a municipality or school district thinks you should pay. The more a person’s property is worth, the bigger the “piece of the pie” they are responsible for.

Where it gets a little confusing is that the various pies (that is, budgets) being baked up by the county, municipalities and school districts can change size from year to year. So even if your effective share goes up, you might end up paying less or the same amount in taxes, and vice versa.

Once the total value of properties across each taxing jurisdiction is assessed, the taxing body asks itself, “What do we need to set the tax rate at to meet our budget?” So for example, if the total value of properties was $500,000,000 and the county (for example) decided it needed $5,000,000 toward its budget, the tax rate would be one percent.

Then that tax rate is applied to each property based on its value, which determines the owner’s actual tax bill.

By the numbers

According to the county assessor’s office, which performs all assessment in Tompkins County, the total value of properties in Tompkins County increased by just over $500 million over the last roll year, an increase of about 6 percent. Roughly 10,000 out of 35,200 property parcels in Tompkins increased in value, while almost 500 decreased.

This is not surprising given Ithaca’s housing situation. Low supply means higher demand, which, naturally, leads to higher property values.

Franklin is clear that the assessment office is not influenced or biased by political forces — only by the market. Tompkins is unique in New York as the only county to have use a county-wide assessment system, whereas many counties have independent assessors on the town and city levels.

“My office is very fortunate that we can act without political pressure to ‘keep the values up.’ I’ve heard too many horror stories from assessors across the state and country who do not have that luxury,” he explains. “There are cases where the assessor hasn’t been reappointed simply because they did their job correctly but it wasn’t what the town board wanted.”

While the Tompkins Office of Assessment aims to keep assessment values up to date, Franklin says that a limited staff (his office now has 11 assessors where it once had 19) means that some properties will inevitably “slip through the cracks.” This is one reason why some properties end up seeing more drastic changes in value.

“I would love to actually revalue every property every year but with current staffing, we have to statistically analyze what areas need to be reviewed each year,” explained Franklin. “We try to break it down to neighborhood, condition of property, property classes, etcetera to try to determine what subsection of the market is moving up or down.”

With that in mind, a report from the assessor’s office notes that the public’s feedback is vital in ensuring the accuracy of assessments: “We firmly believe that in order for us to continue to provide such a high standard product, that we need the input of the public in reviewing our information and our values.”

To that end, property owners can request an informal assessment review with someone from the assessor’s office. Per the report:

The deadline to file an informal review application is April 8th. These appointments are the property owners’ opportunity to present information to the Department of Assessment to take into consideration when reviewing the assessed value … The formal review period when a property owner can file a grievance application with the Board of Assessment Review is from May 1 to May 27th. Grievance day will be held on May 27th at the Department of Assessment. A small number of appointments for grievance day will be able to be scheduled starting on May 1. A walk-in period will be scheduled from 4-8PM.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.