Tompkins County Department of Assessment. (File Photo)

ITHACA, N.Y. — With the end of winter, the crocuses begin to shoot up from the ground, and the Tompkins County Department of Assessment releases its latest batch of property tax assessments for the year.

As we’ve covered in previous years, the county’s setup is rather unique in the state. In most communities, the towns handle their own assessments. For the past 51 years, however, the county has handled all the assessments for Tompkins County, which results in greater time and staffing efficiencies. The staff of about one dozen is kept busy all year long. Tompkins County has 16 municipalities and 35,625 tax parcels (+219 since last year) with a combined value of $14.3 billion, and over $8 billion of that in tax-exempt properties. (If you’re looking for an in-depth exploration of their work, have a read through 2018’s write-up here.)

For this year, residential reassessments were carried out for the city of Ithaca, the town and village of Groton, the villages of Dryden and Freeville, and the West Hill and South Hill areas of the town of Ithaca. On the commercial side, the department reassessed a number of apartment complexes, fueling stations, convenience stores, car dealerships, horse farms, manufacturing facilities and bed and breakfasts.

Continuing a trend seen for several years now, the department of assessment has found sales prices of homes are well above the assessed values of the property. Countywide, the average assessment for properties sold between July 2018 and July 2019 was 91.6% of the sales price — so on average, a home sold at the median price of $235,000 was assessed at about $215,000. It’s a reflection of the market – difficult for many buyers, but a boon for many sellers.

On that related note, the median sales price for a home in Tompkins County dipped slightly last year, from $236,000 to $235,000 (for all practical purposes, this would be treated as holding steady). The average home sales price declined 1.3%, from $268,341 to $264,826, though this value is often skewed by high-price luxury home sales. The overall number of sales grew substantially, from 849 last year to 949 in 2019, the highest count since 2007. Based on the data, it looks plausible that, when compared to 2018, a lot more moderately-priced homes hit the market last year.

“This was a pretty typical year – at least typical in regards to the last 10 years or so. The real estate market overall is still strong in the area. Interest rates are low and even predicted to go lower, if you believe some of the articles that I have read. Apartments are still strong as well, sale prices reflect that. Even with more stock coming online, the sales are still strong,” said Jay Franklin, Director of the Department of Assessment.

Of the properties that were reassessed for this year’s tax rolls, the median gain in value was $10,000. Of course, as the online saying goes, YMMV, “your mileage may vary”. In the city of Ithaca, not only have neighborhoods like Fall Creek continued to be red hot in terms of demand, the effect is spilling over into neighborhoods like Northside and Southside. That combination of high desirability, high demand and a lack of supply continue to be the blessing and curse of many Fall Creek residents, and prices appreciate so rapidly the neighborhood is reassessed every two years instead of the usual three year rotation.

Further out, the assessors are watching an increasing number of high-price property sales in Caroline (possible Ellis Hollow spillover), Groton’s seeing an uptick in values as it embraces a role as the more affordable alternative to Ithaca and the inner suburban towns, and in general, most of the for-sale sub-markets are doing fairly well as of 2019. One area that is starting to struggle, though, are student rentals. With declines in enrollment at Ithaca College and Cornell opening Maplewood and it’s 2,000 bed North Campus expansion underway, slack has shown up in the market, though buyers continue to pick up properties even though the investment doesn’t look as good as it once did. As the Department of Assessment has noted before, if it could tax Cornell’s North Campus expansion, it’d be worth the equivalent of the entire 3,500-person town of Enfield.

“The average increase isn’t relevant to me. That would mean that we were 100% accurate before and that all properties would move accordingly which isn’t the case. My appraisal staff is the best in the business but it is the nature of the business that we will be wrong sometimes, (due to) unique property and location, or wrong inventory on file. In some cases, we are able to trend properties up/down, just supply a 10% increase to everyone. But we can do better than that in most cases. That is why we send our appraisers out to have them value the property,” said Franklin.

Should a newly-reassessed property owner wish to dispute the revised property value of their holdings, the deadline to file an informal review application is April 3rd. The formal review period when a property owner can file a grievance application with the Board of Assessment Review is from May 1st to May 26th. Grievance day will be held on May 26th at the Department of Assessment. A small number of appointments for grievance day will be able to be scheduled starting on May 1st. A walk-in period will be scheduled from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

“The informal assessment review meetings are a time for the property owner to help us fill in those gaps where we might need more information to review that assessment. We are not going to be 100% accurate. A property owner does not need to let us into their house. And frankly, we don’t have the staffing to allow us to do that. But we do have adequate staffing to place a value estimate on their house and to review the information that comes in. That’s why this step is so important to the process. If we are wrong, we need the homeowner to give us information as to why we are wrong. No one in my office will ‘defend’ a value at this point in time, we are not to that step yet. This is still the information gathering stage,” Franklin added.

Franklin sought to make one thing clear, since this might be of interest given the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis – that hasn’t been taken into account yet, and won’t be for four more months. Legally, the Department of Assessment can’t make adjustments because they’re obligated to look at market conditions as they were in July 2019.

“Our new assessments are based upon a valuation date as of July 1, 2019.  We look at the market conditions as of this date and we base the assessments as of those market conditions.  As of July 1, 2019, the threat of the COVID-19 wasn’t there.  We are well aware of the situation and the reactions that are being made in response.  We will be reviewing any effect that this has on the real estate market when we start to prepare for the 2021 Assessment Roll which is based upon a valuation date as of July 1, 2020.”

On a related note, for those who wish to practice social distancing, you can present information for an informal assessment review meeting without having to do the meeting face-to-face. The form to download and fill out is on the Department of Assessment’s webpage, and the link to file it is just above it on the webpage. “(W)e are making sure that we do take the phone numbers of everyone who is scheduled for an in-person meeting in case we do have to make a change during these meetings. All different types of review are given the same consideration. We will also review those who didn’t come in if we get a significant number of properties that came in from a certain area,” said Franklin.

Voice editor emeritus Kelsey O’Connor contributed to this article.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.