City Assessor Rhonda Saulsbury says she feels the pain of the many City of Batavia property owners who have been hit with higher assessments for several years in a row.
However, she’s not in a position to change what is happening due to New York State’s requirement that assessments are reviewed on a yearly basis and her office’s goal of achieving a 100 percent sale price-to-assessment ratio.
Saulsbury (photo at right) was at City Council’s Business Meeting tonight seeking to explain the inner workings of the assessment process in light of the numerous complaints she – and Council members – have received from city residents about the preliminary assessment notices that were mailed out last week.
Following up a comment by Council member Paul Viele, who called the state’s real property tax law “a disgrace,” Saulsbury acknowledged that the timing for yet another increase is not good.
“People are suffering; people are struggling with the pandemic, their finances, maybe their job, their children being home for so long – there’s so many things feeding into it, and I'm the one person that they can get a hold of and talk to,” she said.
“I do my best to explain it. We have New York State real property tax law for a reason. And unfortunately, New York State, as everybody in this room knows, is a heavy homeowner tax burden state. So, we have to follow those guidelines … It's kind of a vicious cycle for sure.”
In her 12th year as the city assessor, Saulsbury (who also handles the same duties for the Town of Batavia) said assessments change for only two reasons – equalization, meaning sale price-to-assessment ratios are growing apart, and for physical reasons, meaning something’s changed with the property, taken away or added.
“The culmination of a yearlong project is, of course, an assessment update,” she said. “And this year, we're in the thankless position to be in our fourth year in a row with really high increases across the board throughout the county, including the city.”
Saulsbury said the city started out at plus 4 – “meaning that our ratios were off 4 percent and above, four years ago,” she said – and it increased to plus 6 and eventually to plus 11.
“Just to kind of put that in perspective, in years’ past, the city was either zero or plus one,” she said. “The city's growth has grown exponentially over the last four years, which in itself is a good thing, but in my position, not a good thing.”
She said if property owners whose assessments have gone up decide to seek an informal review or appear at Grievance Day (May 26), she will explain, with current data, how she came to the assessment figure.
“For anyone who got an assessment increase, we can show you the five sales that we actually use for your home or your business,” she said. “It's not throwing darts at a dartboard as some people may think. It's actually quite a science and it's all based on our assessment-to-sale price ratio throughout the year.
“So, when you have 300 or 400 residential sales, in particular, and the sale price is 40, 50, 60, 80,000 dollars above the assessment, we then have to do an assessment project.”
Council member Robert Bialkowski asked that if sale prices dropped by 8 percent, for example, would that trigger another reassessment.
“It’s the same state guideline; we have to hit the same thing,” Saulsbury replied. “We have to maintain assessments at market value. We're at 100 percent market value, so if the sales actually were to dip – and most people don’t believe me – we would have to adjust to those, also. In our case, it has been up and we want it to be up or to be flat. I've never experienced anything where we had to reduce.”
Saulsbury said the state rewards the city periodically for achieving assessments based on 100 percent of market value, and expects to receive around $18,000 this year to help offset costs of conducting assessment projects.
Council member John Canale, who says he follows the real estate market on a daily basis, remarked that he’s not convinced that homes went up so much in value in one year.
“… people are calling me this year and saying, ‘I thought last year, you were up to 100 percent market value. I’m an intelligent man, you can't tell me that the housing market is going up that much more since 2021.’”
Still, he said he knows that Saulsbury isn’t the one to blame.
“You’re walking around with a target on your back right now. And I wouldn't want to be you. Unfortunately, a lot of people think you're the one that's making these decisions,” he said. “It’s very important that the public realize that no, you're basically the messenger. You’re hired to do a job and you're conducting the way you do your job by state requirements.”
Bialkowski said it comes down to “people don't trust the government anymore.”
“I have a friend, and on Saturday I met with him and he spent about 10 minutes just screaming at me,” he said. “He said, I’ll bet you $100 right now that you people don't reduce your budget enough that my taxes stay the same.’ And I said, ‘Well, there's three entities in here (Genesee County and the Batavia City School District being the others), you know, and I said we set our budget -- we're very conservative in the city and all that.’
“But I suppose there's other entities I'm not going to speak for, but they just lost trust in their government. And they've seen it and heard it before, and yet their individual tax bills keep increasing.
“And their homes. They need to do more work on them. And they need furnaces and new windows and all that. And they're starting to say, the guy the other day, it's starting to look really good (about leaving the state). He's going to move down south. He’s just fed up with the whole state and I can’t blame him.”
Previously: With property values rising, City prepares for annual assessments.
(This article provides information on how residents can challenge their assessments).