[Editor's Note: This story has a correction from the newspaper version. Resident Mike Barile contended at last week's Town Board meeting that New York City's assessment is down approximately 27 percent, NOT 2 percent.]
MAHOPAC, N.Y.— The contentious debate over the town’s recent revaluation project continued at last week’s Town Board meeting as hundreds of residents crowded the Town Hall meeting room looking for relief from what they say are untenable tax hikes that will force them to sell their homes or go into foreclosure.
The Town Board encouraged property owners who believe their assessments were inaccurate to continue to pursue relief via the grievance process, but warned that the overall revaluation and its numbers has received a stamp of approval from the state. Individual property owners, however, could still see their assessment adjusted downward should they follow the grievance process that starts with informal meetings with Vision Government Solution—the vendor hired by the town to perform the reassessment.
Many have already taken advantage of that.
“As of Wednesday morning (March 22), 5.5 percent of the town made an appointment for an informal hearing with Vision,” said Sue Robinson, project coordinator for Vision Government Services. “That’s 740 people. The meetings are going well; everyone is on their best behavior.”
But many in the audience expressed concern that the time frame was too short between when people could grieve their assessment and when the tax roll needs to be finalized.
“It’s a joke,” said Mike Barile, a local developer who said he intends to run for Town Board this fall. “We should have had six months of public hearings. There are 13,000 parcels; there’s going to be mistakes, I understand that. But you are going to need more than two months to fix them. You are trying to ram this down our throats in eight weeks”
Glenn Droese, the town assessor, said he has enough staff to meet with people who wish to discuss their revaluation and noted there are more steps that can be taken beyond meeting with the assessor’s office.
“I do have other staff in the office besides myself,” he said. “We are all there to talk to you about your assessments. Yes, time is short. But if you don’t get to meet with us, the next step is Board of Assessment Review, which meets May 23. After their decisions go out, which would be in July, your next step is small claims for the residential properties. But usually the informal [meetings with Vision] solve most of the problems.”
Property owners at the meeting said they were gearing up to file a class-action lawsuit against the town over the revaluation project. Town Board members said that was their prerogative, but warned such a suit might not be winnable because state officials have stated the reval numbers look good.
“The numbers are coming in so good; unless you find a fraudulent act or something so grossly inaccurate, a lawsuit is going to be very hard [to win],” said Councilman John Lupinacci.
Councilam Jonathan Schneider added that it’s important for homeowners not to forget about the grievance process and not focus solely on a lawsuit.
“The project is good; the state has said the project is good,” Schneider said. “While every parcel may not be 100 percent accurate, that is the beauty of preliminary numbers and why we have a four-step [grievance] system.”
Schneider and other board members said they are considering the possibility of a revaluation phase-in. This process would divide the tax increases over several years and give homeowners more time to grieve their assessments.
“We have been looking at a phase-in—a three-year plan that allows for you to grieve and does not hit you [with a big tax increase all at once],” said Lupinacci. “It buys time for you to get it right; it buys you time for your grievance so you don’t have to come up with $30,000 by September. [The Town Board] can’t throw out the tax roll. We can recommend, but you are hearing from all these experts and the state that this is one of the best [revals] that New York has seen in a couple of years.”
Carmel would be only the third municipality in the state to utilize a phase-in. It is not a statewide law, so each town must have its phase-in approved by the state legislature and signed by the governor. Greenburgh and Ossining used phase-ins after their revaluations in 2016.
Lupinacci said that the phase-in would not impact property owners whose assessments have gone down.
“Everyone who was assessed down, it will go down immediately,” he said. “So, they are going to realize a benefit; the people who [are going to go up], will see it in stages over three years.”
The phase-ins for Greenburgh and Ossining were for two-year periods.
There are also conditions attached. Only homeowners who qualify for the state’s STAR property tax program can apply once the Town Board opts into the program. There also may be minimum percent limits on how high the assessment has risen in order to qualify. For example, in Ossining, it was limited to homeowners whose assessments rose by at least 25 percent.
“We just learned about [the phase-in] two weeks ago,” Lupinacci said. “We are just starting to dive into it.”
Mahopac resident Bob Buckley said putting the onus on the state Assembly to adopt the phase-in for Carmel was passing the buck.
“You are putting the burden of this issue on the state Assembly and if they can’t get it done then they get thrown under the bus,” he said.
Buckley also got into a contentious debate with Barile over New York City property assessment. The city is the largest property owner in Carmel.
Barile contended that the city’s assessment is down approximately 27 percent, while Buckley said that although some individual properties have decreased, the total assessment for all the city’s properties has risen by more than $400,000.
Lupinacci said that Buckley was technically correct.
“It is up about $407,000,” he said. “It’s $10.5 million to $11 million. Technically, it’s up, but it’s flat.”