State pushing for centralized assessment

QUEENSBURY Under pressure from the state to centralize services and take action toward uniform property valuation, state officials are pressuring counties to consolidate property assessment functions that for decades were accomplished by local assessors. But some local assessors and many property owners are wary of any new system of property valuation that puts more power in the hands of people who arent local. Friday, Warren County Director of Real Property Services Michael Swan presented a report to the county Board of Supervisors detailing potential savings of consolidation and reviewing other aspects of the change. Swans study evaluated three options in centralizing assessment operations: making his county department the official assessing unit, contracting services of the county personnel to conduct the assessing, or implementing a Coordinated Assessing Program, allowing several towns or perhaps all in the county to merge their districts and have one assessment unit and one equalization rate, which the state imposes to equalize differentials in local assessing practices before taxes are calculated. A referendum in the county is required to establish county-wide assessment. The other options are enacted by town resolutions. Swan explained that the main objectives of centralized assessment are a common assessment rate throughout the county, which promotes fairest taxation and full revenue for local municipalities. With school districts overlapping municipal boundaries, situations can arise where taxes can soar for small pockets of taxpayers, while others get a break. Also, with less than 100 percent valuation, towns dont get their fair share of sales tax revenue. The idea of having a person who is not local, however, evaluate property is not generally popular in rural towns, as people like to retain local control. A centralized computer system would offer advantages of cost-savings, uniformity, and convenient access to information for all in the assessment process, the state and regional officials have contended. But long-time Stony Creek Assessor Peter LaGrasse, however, has a different view of centralized assessment and data systems. He supports home rule and is wary of centralized assessment because of concerns over protecting personal privacy and because he believes the states approved formulaic method leads to inaccurate assessing. The state is pushing us into a computer-aided mathematical appraising system thats not valid, he said. Plus, a centralized computer database means details of private houses and property are available for public and government inspection. This is a matter of compromising privacy, he said, noting that he purposefully keeps all his property data on index cards. Property assessment is a sacred trust and should stay that way. Local residents and assessors put a lot of stock in LaGrasses opinions. In 1985, he fought the state after they overrode his local assessing and set a far lower valuation on vast state property in Stony Creek. In lengthy legal maneuvers, LaGrasse successfully defended the local assessments of state land, which meant the state paid their fair share and had to give a $476,277 rebate to Stony Creek. Years later, the state tried a similar challenge, claiming the Stony Creek state land was worth $13 million, rather than the locally-assessed $20.5 million. The state gave up the legal fight and LaGrasse won, saving the local taxpayers a potentially devastating tax hit. Local residents who recall these situations continue to support home rule on assessing. Tuck Birdsall, an assessor in Thurman for decades, said that local assessors can have benefits on a smaller scale than saving hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for local municipalities. He said that local assessors, through personal contact with their property owners their neighbors can help individuals get their lowest possible taxes. He cited the work of Sue Baker, the other Thurman assessor, as saving local people substantial sums of money. Sue is amazing she knows everybodys birthday, and she knows when its time to remind them to apply for exemptions theyre eligible for, he said. Also, Sue has a photographic memory she remembers all the details of acreage and the shape of every plot in town. It would take a new person many years to learn all she knows.

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