October 23, 2021

Cortland reassessing property values

Cortland Standard File Photo

Main Street in downtown Cortland is shown in this file photo.

The city of Cortland is reassessing its properties, a process it expects to complete in two or three years, the city’s top administrator said Friday.

The properties were last reassessed in 2008, state records show, and their assessments have drifted from the figures state analysis suggests they should be. Revaluation is under way for the city of Cortland; it should be completed in two to three years, said Mack Cook, city director of administration and finance.

The citywide reassessment was necessary because the city’s equalization rate is 93 percent, suggesting the assessments no longer accurately reflect the value of the properties. Cook said this morning the new assessments will be revealed when all of them are completed, perhaps in 2021 or 2022.

Property assessments don’t directly determine your property tax bill — that’s determined by the property tax levy a community creates as it forms its budget.

But the assessment is, essentially, the share of a community’s value that the property owner is responsible for.

In a hypothetical situation, if a municipality changes every property’s assessment by the same amount, and money raised from the property tax does not change, then property tax bills won’t change either.

However, the rule of thumb is that after an assessment, about a third of the properties will pay a larger share, a third will pay a smaller share and a third will pay about the same.

That’s still not likely to make some taxpayers happy, and they’ll want to complain.

Here’s how it might happen: You’re a Cortland homeowner. It’s May. You get an envelope in the mail from the city of Cortland. You open it. You read the contents. You learn your property tax assessment has gone up, maybe way up. And you blow your cork.

Then Grievance Day comes around — 4 to 8 p.m. June 12. And you show up at City Hall, and you blow your cork some more.

Problem is, you don’t bring anything along to back up your grievance.

Or if you do, you don’t bring enough, or you don’t bring the right stuff, and whatever you say or do isn’t enough.

The five-member assessment board has an answer for you that night: Tough luck, (buddy/lady). Your assessment isn’t changing.

This is an example of exactly what you shouldn’t do.

It doesn’t have to go down that way, said Brian Fitts, assessor for the city of Cortland (and Virgil and Homer as well). Fitts said his office is your first stop if you have a problem with your assessment.

That’s in the Homer Town Hall, up on the third floor. You go around back, enter on the right, and follow the signs for Assessor.

This is where you’d start, because Fitts can work with you.

First, remember that the assessment is simply a measure of the value of your property to determine what your fair share of the property tax levy is.

But if you’re clear on that, and think that something else is wrong, then Fitts is the man to see.

It may turn out there’s a misunderstanding, on your part or his. Or it may be that Fitts doesn’t know crucial information that you have.

Either way, you and Fitts can often come to an agreement, and the issue can be resolved right there.

“I have a great grievance board, but they’re not going to be as intimately knowledgeable about the property as I would be,” Fitts said.

If, however, you’re not satisfied with Fitts’ judgment, you can bring your grievance to the board on June 12. But once you go before the board, you’re on your own. Fitts only provides factual answers to direct questions. He’s not there to be your advocate, or offer explanations or opinions.

When the board reaches a decision, Fitts is not in the room. The five members of the board deliberate on their own.

If the board hands down a decision that aggrieves you even more, then there’s small claims court. You file your claim for $35, and you appear before a county-appointed hearing officer.

If you win, you get your assessment lowered and your 35 bucks back.

If you lose, your assessment stays the same, and you’re out $35 and the ability to contest the assessment further that year. If that still doesn’t sit well with you, then you’re welcome to air your grievances again next year. So who gets caught off guard by their assessments?

Fitts said first-time buyers of distressed properties may sometimes be surprised by their assessments. Just because you bought a property for a low price, which is common at auctions and after foreclosures, Fitts said, that doesn’t mean the assessment will necessarily drop.

“A lot of people think it’s an automatic process, and it’s not,” he said.

A state formula called the equalization ratio, may show when a community-wide reassessment is needed. The ratio is calculated by comparing the state appraisal of the property value for an entire municipality against the total assessed value of the properties — a comparison between numbers generated by a state appraiser on the one hand, and assessors like Fitts on the other. The numbers should be nearly the same.

“It can’t be perfect,” Fitts said “but you want to be in the ballpark.”

If those numbers are way out of whack, the discrepancy suggest a revaluation. That means property reassessement for an entire town or city, and that can lead to changes in assessments for everybody.

In the meantime, Fitts keeps updating property assessments as properties change hands or undergo renovations. He drives the streets, checking properties for major changes. He also checks on building permits, because they tip him off to property renovations, which can mean changes in property value.

He also keeps on eye on property sales. A property selling for significantly higher than the assessed value is a red flag, telling Fitts an assessment may be outdated.

If he sees a trend of sales like this in one area, that may lead him to reassess the properties of an entire neighborhood.

Fitts is not the only one in his office. He has two assistants who help him with his work, and also help property owners with tax exemptions, such as the School Tax Relief program, for lower-income and older property owners, as well as programs for veterans and farm owners.

Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.