March 1, 2004

Assessments and taxes

The Ithaca Journal's editorial today examines the annual assessment process. This process has come under fire lately, largely because taxes and assessments have risen at the same time. I think the Journal is right that annual assessment and a central county office for doing it is a wise idea, but they lose me when they write:

Property owners -- read voters -- are reminded of the impact of government spending each year when they receive their reassessment notices.

It's a very strange statement to make in the middle of an article that's taken great pains to note that assessments and taxation are separate processes. While the assessment notice does sort of do that, listing current taxes and what taxes would be if rates continued at last year's levels, it's a spurious comparison for all the reasons that the Journal makes plain in the rest of its piece.

There is definitely something good in the annual assessment notices, however - property owners get a baseline value for their property and a general sense of whether its value has increased or decreased over the past year. Knowing what a property is worth, even if government, bank, and market assessments vary, gives owners a chance to think about what they want to do with their property, and whether investments in that property have any chance of paying off.

The assessment on my house has gone up 44% since we purchased it. We've taken advantage of that increase to refinance the house, improving our overall financial situation, not to mention that we feel more comfortable investing in improvements. It's a nice place to be.

Yes, taxes have increased - but if the house's value hadn't changed at all, I don't think the tax levy would be any smaller, and I'd have both higher taxes and a property whose value remained the same.

Fortunately, the Journal and I agree on the conclusion:

Property owners who are concerned about their tax bills should focus their efforts on the towns, counties, schools, fire districts and villages that impose the tax levys. The only ongoing issue that taxpayers should have regarding their actual assessments is accuracy. If the assessments accurately reflect what their homes or businesses could sell for, then they are paying their fair share.
When it comes to the assessment procedure, Tompkins County has it right. It should not buckle to pressure and throw out this fair and equitable process.

(Also, if you're curious, the Department of Assessment provides all kinds of information on how assessments are derived, including this map (269KB PDF) of assessment neighborhoods in the town of Dryden and this explanation of the map key. There's even a searchable on-line database of properties and values if you want to compare your assessment to your neighbors.)

Posted by simon at March 1, 2004 3:52 PM in , , ,
Note on photos