Editorial: Curious Proposal

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Town of Southampton made the effort to reassess all its taxable properties 30 years ago to eliminate inequities caused by years of neglect and unfair assessing practices. The town protects the accuracy of the rolls by updating its figures every year, at full value, something that no other taxing entity in New York State does except the Town of Shelter Island.

Now the Town Board is thinking of pausing the automatic annual reassessment process for two years under a proposal made by Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who says he is worried there is no mechanism to prevent sudden, steep increases in assessments on properties with owners who don’t have the money to pay higher tax bills. Young people and senior citizens on fixed incomes could be especially hard hit, he says. He wants a panel of experts to look into the issue during the two-year moratorium.

For those who believe the town did the right thing 30 years ago and that the town assessor’s office has done a highly professional job maintaining the town’s tax rolls fairly and equitably ever since, it’s a curious proposal.

People don’t like to see an increase in their property’s assessed value. They think it means an automatic increase in their tax bills, which isn’t the case. If the value of all properties rise or fall according to the current market, and local taxing-district budgets remain the same, nothing will change except the tax rate. Only if budgets rise, and different kinds of properties change in value disproportionately compared to others, would any tax bills go up more than others.

The town took the politically brave step of reassessing — and then updating its rolls every year using full market value — under Supervisor George Stavropoulos because it faced litigation at the time from a group of recently arrived property owner. They rightly complained that the “welcome stranger” practice of reassessing only after a sale or property improvement penalized them as newcomers. Meanwhile, people who had owned properties for decades, and had not modified them, were paying taxes on the basis of ancient values that were way out of date.

As property values rise over time, a town that reassesses only when sales take place, or when improvements are made, will allow a whole raft of properties to fall behind in assessed value. Let that go on for decades — as the Town of East Hampton and many others have done — and the tax rolls will contain values that are out of whack, benefitting some and hurting others. The wonder is no one has come forward to challenge those towns in court.

Mr. Schneiderman says Southampton’s use of a process called “market trend analysis” to estimate new property values most years is where the problem lies. It seems more likely the real problem is a hot market, which can lead to sudden, steep changes in assessed value. Maybe there should be a mechanism to limit the impact of sudden shifts. But it should not require the town to give up on its commitment to fairness and transparency with up-to-date, full-value assessments.

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