Town Assessment Boards Axed

County switches to phone-based complaints

“Talk to me, but not about your assessment.” Legislator Dawson (left) with Amanda Champion.

by Robert Lynch,  January 18, 2023

Thanks to legislative action Tuesday, the soonest you may be able to look an assessor eyeball to eyeball is on Grievance Day. That is, not until late-May.

Securing the bare minimum of eight votes needed, the Tompkins County Legislature Tuesday indefinitely suspended the half-century-long practice of convening Town-based Local Boards of Assessment Review, tribunals that allowed residents to complain to local officials at their Town Halls prior to Grievance Day’s final assessment decision. 

“We believe it’s not the best use of time and money,” Government Operations Committee Chair Amanda Champion explained Tuesday.  Her committee had recommended the indefinite suspension.

But that’s only half of the story.   At Tuesday’s Legislature meeting, Director of Assessment Jay Franklin revealed for the first time that the “Informal Review Meetings” he’s promoted to replace complaints before the Local Boards will take place this year only by telephone, and no longer in person.  As yet, County Assessment has not made provision for zoom conferences.  

Franklin advised legislators that the typical “Informal Assessment Review” takes only 5-10 minutes.  And to him, it becomes a matter of crowd control.

“Just by handling the amount of people who are coming in and almost cycling through our office, we just don’t have that space,” Franklin told the Legislature. 

But mind you, only moments earlier, Franklin had said these words:  “We hold Informal Assessment Review meetings each year….  That’s really where we want people to come and talk to us…. People just need to reach out to us and ask us if there’s really any question.” 

So assessors want to hear from you.  They just don’t want to meet you at the office.  Assessors may define “meeting” a little differently than the rest of us do.

This year, Tompkins County may find itself swamped with assessment grievances.  Because of skyrocketing property values in many neighborhoods, the Department of Assessment plans to reassess every parcel in the county.  In many instances, assessors will “trend” values upward on the basis of sampling.  “We will send out 25,000 change notices on February 10th,” Franklin told the Legislature.

All three Republican legislators plus Dryden Democrat Mike Lane voted Tuesday to keep the Local Boards in place.  Mike Sigler was among those who would retain the Local Boards.

“These are one of the few times, I think, that we give the public an opportunity outside of this actual building, and outside of downtown, to come and talk with us,” Sigler said. “I see people re-engaging.”  

Sigler observed he sees people finally emerging from their self-spun, post-pandemic cocoons.

“Another point of engagement.” Mike Sigler urging the Local Boards’ retention.

“I think this is an opportunity for people to come and visit us in their local Town Halls and say, ‘Listen, this is the problem I have with my assessment,’” Sigler said in praise of the Local Boards.  “It’s another point of engagement.”

But legislator Deborah Dawson would take a pass on engaging over the price of a home. “I don’t see these meetings as an optimal point of engagement between our constituents and us as elected representatives,” Dawson countered.  In her opinion, a constituent’s “time is probably more productively used if they go directly to Jay’s office.”

Dawson conceded personal frustration over her inability to connect with those she represents through newsletters or other means.  Nevertheless, when it comes to property valuations, she’d leave adjustments to the Assessment Department professionals.

”If you’re out there, talk to me, but not about your assessment,” Dawson remarked.

Dryden’s Greg Mezey agreed with Dawson.  In Mezey’s opinion, the time spent by local tribunals that lack any power is time simply wasted.  “It doesn’t do anything,” he said.

Local Boards of Assessment Review first convened in Tompkins County more than 50 years ago, beginning when Tompkins transitioned to its unique, centralized, County-administered assessment.  For decades, Local Boards provided a degree of deference to hometown oversight. 

Each Board, staffed by a Tompkins County legislator, several appointed local residents, and attended by Assessment Department staff, may only recommend assessment changes.  By contrast, in late-May, on Grievance Day, the County’s Board of Assessment Review holds actual power to adjust property values in response to an aggrieved owner’s complaint.

After a three-year hiatus, Tompkins County revived the Local Boards during 2022.   Officials last year found the Town-based sessions poorly attended.  Only 47 properties were grieved countywide during last year’s hearings.   Just two people attended Enfield’s session.

Nonetheless, the Enfield Town Board in October recommended the Legislature continue the local Advisory Boards.  And during a mid-January Town Board meeting, discussion raised the prospect of Enfield this year assembling a local review panel of its own.

The suspension adopted Tuesday leaves undetermined whether Tompkins County will ever revive the Local Boards.  The measure adopted would continue the suspension until either the Department of Assessment or “the appropriate standing committee of the Legislature” determines Boards should return.