Preparing for Grievance Day

 

Excessive Assessment Appeal Services

Michael DeRosa Assessment Appeal Advocate
(c) (315) 406-7355
Mike Franklin Unique Property Advocate
(315) 876-2262
(e) info@PreparingForGrievanceDay.com

 

by Mike Franklin

Below are five ways of winning an equitable Assessment

 

1) Establish if owners are fairly assessed:

I have had people come to me and inquire as to whether they should challenge their assessment. I've run a preliminary valuation and established it was too close to argue and not likely to be a cost effective use of time. It takes time and effort to challenge a tax assessment, and a calculation can be made to establish a probability of success and what the savings might be vs. the costs involved in achieving those results. It is wise to choose your battles. And it is best for everyone not to waste time needlessly. And that includes the time of the Assessor and all the people involved in the appeals process. Sometimes winning is taking no action at all because it is possible you can be under assessed.

 

2) Assessor Level Appeal:

Example 1: In one case I was able to help a client reduce their assessment directly with the Assessor more than $500,000 because the Assessor realized the property was in a failed subdivision and there was no way the property could possibly sell for assessed value. There were a lot of negotiations. But in the end we were able to come up with a reasonable figure without having to go thru the grievance process or litigation. The Assessor was a reasonable person and realized it was a unique situation and we just needed to sit down and figure out what was reasonable under the circumstances.

Example 2: Multi-parcel land assessment: There had been a reassessment for all properties in the area, and the property owner's assessment went up about 25% total for all his parcels. The property owner felt he was slightly over-assessed to begin with. We made an appointment with the Assessor and went over each parcel one by one and were able to achieve not only the removal of the 25% over-all increase, but also an over-all decrease of the assessment by about 10% over-all. It was a simple matter of sitting down with the Assessor and reviewing everything item by item. Essentially we helped the Assessor update his records so that they were accurate.

Example 3: I had another client with property in the same assessment district. I told the client of what transpired with Example 2, and he made his own appointment with the assessor. I told him of the issues we addressed and he was able to resolve the matter himself to his satisfaction without expense. I provided a few key points for him to focus on and he was all set.

Example 4: A noteworthy property in Skaneateles known as the Roger Scott property had been acquired by a new owner after Roger Scotts house had been torn down as he had built a house far too big and was in violation of code. The new owner built a much smaller house. His assessment was raised from somewhere in the $300,000 range to the low $900,000 range. Needless to say this caused the property owner considerable stress. Michael DeRosa and I made an appointment with the Assessor. We found the Assessor to be cordial and he listened to our legitimate concerns. We pointed out that 1/3 of the property waterfront had an easement that the upland property owners in a subdivision across the street had access to put their Kayacks and Canoes in the water. They also had rights to store their equipment. We argued 1/3 of the waterfront value should be attributed to the upland property owners not the property owner. The Assessor was unaware of the easement and agreed. We also argued comparables and made arguements for adjustments to get the square footage of the home calculated properly. We were able to negotiate a reduction to the low $500,000 level. The property owner was happy with that. We think we recieved an appropriate adjustment and we appreciate the Assessor working with us to generate an equitable figure in a professional way that saved everybody time and aggrivation.

Example 5: Use of an Appraisal. Last year the property owner attempted to secure a home equity loan. The bank hired an Appraiser and the home didnt appraise high enough to secure the loan. The Assessor raised the assessment approximatly $50,000 more than the bank Appraisal. The property owner attempted to negotiate with the Assessor and cited the appraisal. The property owner indicated the Assessor disagreed with the appraisal. This year the property owner came to me. I wrote a letter supporting the appraisal. A Broker valuation does not trump a licensed Appraisers appraisal. An Assessors assessment does not trump a Licensed Appraisers appraisal. The seller took my letter indicating I'm a licensed NYS Real Estate Broker and a copy of the bank appraisal to the Assessor. This time the Assessor agreed to reduce the assessment to the appraisal figure as is appropriate.

Frankly, the property owner should have been able to secure the reduction on his own the year before. I suppose the backing of a licensed Broker substantiated what to me was an obvious possition. Assessors have to deal with hundreds of properties. Sometimes they make mistakes...... as we all do.

 

Example 6: Use of a Survey. A property owner showed me the property and within 30 seconds of seeing the property I knew it was over assessed. I contacted the very uncooperatinve Assessor and she indicated she had no intention of making any adjustments and refused to discuss the details. I looked into the situation and I discovered the water frontage was incorrectly calculated. I learned that the property owner had been paying for 1/3 of the neighbors waterfront taxes for 30 years. I addressed the matter with the Assessor. She refused to cooperate. I contacted the County. At first they were uncooperative. Then I told them I have a survey.... a legal document that supports my possition. WHat do they have? Their response? I needed to get an updated survey. My argument was nothing had changed since the survey was done. They had no further arguement and agreed to make the necessary adjustments. Proper adjustments were made dispite the unprofessional, uncooperative Assessor.

 

3) (BAR) Board of Assessment Review Appeal:

Example 1: I had a client with a pretty standard property in a development. Their assessment had been raised and the owners felt if anything, considering the market conditions, the assessment should go down. We attempted to communicate with the Assessor, but the Assessor refused to cooperate. Essentially the assessor spoke with us long enough to see what data we could provide, but offered none in return. We asked for the Assessor's data and were refused. We didn't have enough time to FOIL request (Freedom of Information Law) the data. We felt this was rather inappropriate behavior for a public servant. So we took the matter to the BAR (Board of Assessment Review). We relayed the same information to the panel that we did to the Assessor and we won at this level. The Assessor was using sales from other subdivisions in incomparable areas and we were using comparables that were within a few hundred yards. It was clear that the Assessor was manufacturing comparables to suit her opinion, not comparables based on solid objective valuation methods, in our opinion. In the end our data was more compelling than that of the Assessor. Sometimes personalities get involved and it can cause people to dig their heels in. I think that is what happened in this case. I try to avoid that as much as possible moving forward. This process should be about data. It should not get personal.

Example 2: I had a client who had already unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with the Assessor. He brought me in last minute to help him argue his case with the BAR (Board of Assessment Review). The property owner had bought a foreclosure on a half-built house. It appears as though the Assessor got her hands on a construction loan document that indicated what the previous owner was borrowing to build the home. We made the argument that the document had nothing to do with the reality of what transpired. The house was large for the neighborhood and no properties had sold for the kind of money the Assessor assessed it at. The owner finished building the house himself on a Home Depot card. So we made arguments to that effect. We also argued that square footage does not equal value as the more square footage you have the more you have to heat and cool. So bigger does not mean more value. In 2006 it may have, but not in the current market. We also argued that the configuration of the lot was not conducive to families with small children due to a cliff which limits potential buyers and that this is particularly problematic as the neighborhood consists mostly of families of that type. The BAR agreed with us, and we were able to secure a reduction satisfactory to the property owner.

4) (SCAR) Small Claims Assessment Review:

Example 1: I had a client who has a house that had the appearance of being much more than it really is. The property owner had built a very large and formal fence in front of the property that made it look like Graceland. Sometimes it is not best to embellish. The Assessor in good faith felt that property owner (my client) should be paying more. However, the Assessor could not substantiate that opinion. There were no comparable sales. The Appraiser tried to shoehorn in three equestrian properties with barns, fences, pasture and acreage. Basically the Assessor chose to use the three largest sales in the school district as comparables to support the figure. Well, this property only had 2.5 acres, and half of that was a cliff. The use of equestrian facilities as comparables to a colonial is ridiculous. The Assessor was stretching.

The Assessor's comparables were not comparable. We argued extenuating circumstances that devalued the property. We argued there was a natural gas pipeline running thru the property that would certainly stigmatize the property to potential buyers. The house was also built by the owner by himself with a Home Depot card, meaning it was not a reputable builder. We also argued a lack of amenities such as no public water or public sewer. And even though the property owner had a natural gas pipeline running thru their property, ironically they had no natural gas available to the house. We also demonstrated yearly runoff issues. And we argued that the location was inferior. We had to identify any and all shortcomings to meet our burden of proof as the Assessor was convinced by the cosmetics that the house was under-assessed. We felt that the Assessor had inappropriately influenced the BAR and we lost at the panel level. This may or may not have happened, but the appearance of impropriety was there in our opinion. We took it to the county level SCAR (Small Claims Assessment Review), and it was myself and the property owner meeting with the county hearing officer and the Assessor. He aggressively demanded the Assessor substantiate their figures. The Assessor was unable to do so. We very thoroughly substantiated our position, and as a result we received a reduction that was not all that we had asked for, but it was satisfactory to the client.

 

Example 2: I had a client with a property in a subdivision with many comparable properties. However, the properties tended to be configured differently. Some had finished basements, some didn't. Some had lofts, some didn't. Some had patios. Some were located on ponds. Others not. The Assessor was comparing my client's property to a model home that was located on a pond, had a finished basement and a walk-out patio and had more amenities such as granite counter tops. My client had none of those things. The Assessor also was using properties from other subdivisions as comparables. We had a sale of a connecting unit that was identical to our property. The Assessor could not use that sale as it was sold too recently to be included in the assessment window. But the bottom line is what better comparable can you have than a very recent connected identical unit? We argued our assessment should be that sale price.

The Assessor would not work with us. Not only would the Assessor not work with us, but also stonewalled our attempts to obtain their documentation that substantiates their figures. This Assessor was somewhat cooperative. But not completely. The Assessor was in a difficult situation. If they adjusted this property they'd have to adjust the entire subdivision which would upset their mass appraisal.

We took the matter to the BAR. Our arguments were sound, but they were rejected. I suspect the BAR knew the overall ramifications and even though they knew we had a solid argument ruled against us. So we took it to the county SCAR level. We felt the county hearing officer was much more objective and we won a reduction. We didn't get a reduction down to equal the sale of the neighboring property, but it was close enough for the property owner.

Example 3: In SCAR Assessor used data and photos from VRBO rental venue in violation of the VRBO user policy and the property owners copyright. The property owner for health reasons had transfered the property to his sister for later distribution to a nephew. The Assessor disengenuously argued the property was not owner occupied and therefore was not the jurisdiction of SCAR. The SCAR hearing officer agreed. This required the property owner to take an assessment challenge to Supreme Court which would require an Attorney to challenge a $30,000 assessment dispute. THis makes no economic sense so the property owner decided not to pursue the matter despite having a strong case. In otherwords the Assessor is treating the property like it is a commercial structure utilizing a technicality to deny the property owner their right to challenge an inappropriate assessment. My opinion is that the Assessor in question does not have the moral fiber to be representing our government and shoould be removed from her possition as Assessor. I will also note the property owner did not respond in a timely manner to the SCAR ruling. If you think the matter may end up in Supreme Court you need to have a lawyer ready to respond to a failed SCAR petition within 30 days.

Example 5: The wife/co-owner of an island property was getting out of the shower when she noticed a boat at their dock. Wearing only a towel she opened sliding door to see who it was. She looked out only to see the Assessor peering in her window. Her 14 year old daughter was also at home. The wife got dressed and went outside and discovered the Assessor in the barn peeking around. She confronted the Assessor and told him to leave. He did. He then proceeded to the next dock down also owned by same property owner. Also, note previously the town had been informed in writing that they needed an appointment to come on the property. Also, that day, the Assessor walked right past a no tresspassing sign at the dock. We challenged the assessment and in the BAR hearing one of the BAR members asked how they are supposed to do an assessment without seeing the property. Our response was..... to do it legally. The Assessor was tresspassing and violated the tutilage of the property and the property owners Constitutional right to privacy. The BAR was 100% behind the Assessor and we lost unanimously. We took the matter to SCAR. The hearing officer was a State Supreme Court law clerk (A lawyer) who also happened to be an island property owner. The Assessor was using mainland properties as comparables that were not comparable. The Assessor used properties from far away islands in other towns as comparables. We used a near-by island. We used real comps. The Assessor tried to find anything that would support his false possition. Oddly, the BAR chair attended the SCAR hearing. My understanding is BAR (Board of Assessment Review) is supposed to be a separate level of appeal. Well, it obviously wasnt in this case. We were able to secure a proper reduction. Ive since heard thru the grapevine that the BAR, the Assessor and the town code enforcement officer who was also on the boat that day ...... are out to get us.

 

6) State level: (Article 78) I have not gone to the State level Article 78 as an appeal to SCAR as yet as no client has chosen this avenue and in most cases has been unnecessary. But when it is necessary, I am willing to do so. I believe that if your argument is good and if you are in the right and if you are thoroughly prepared, it will not be necessary for the situation to go to the state level. If the matter does get to this level and the matter is serious enough an Attorney may be necessary to assist procedurally. Otherwise the property owner has to represent themselves. My role would be as an expert witness. My assistance with valuation substantiation would still be helpful. Also note, that it is wise to consult an Attorney at any level of this process.

When you file a SCAR petition you are waiving your right to an Article 7 in State Supreme Court. My experience in SCAR is you are relying on the SCAR officer as far as objectivity and procedural expertise and valuation proficiancy. SCAR hearing officers can be lawyers, former assessors, appraisers or real estate brokers like myself. A real estate broker will not likely be an expert in proceedure, but is good at valuation. A lawyer may be good at proceedure, but likely has little experience in valuation. If there is a lot of money involved you may want to consider an Article 7 and secure a lawyer with experience with the process. And it would also be good in addition to a lawyer secure a broker, assessor and appraiser as expert witnesses.

 

Example 6: A tax payer had me look at his property. It was obvious it was over assessed. I looked into the matter and it was clear the water frontage was calculated incorrectly. After being treated rudly, dismissivly and unprofessionally by the Assessor, I was able to go to the county and get the calculation corrected. I still felt the property was still over assessed. So we proceeded to the Board of Assessment review. It was clear the assessor had the BAR in her back pocket and they unanmously voted against us. At this point we had the option of SCAR or an Article 7 in Supreme Court. There wasnt that much money involved that an article 7 would make economic sense so we proceeded to SCAR. The assessor argued that the property was not owner occupied. The property was in a family members name but another family member was the primary user of the property. The hearing officer (a lawyer) ruled that the property was in fact not owner occupied so did not qualify to hear the case in SCAR. To me this is utter nonsense. Non owner occupied implies it is a commercial property. This was not. They wanted the ~$170,000 property assessment to be held in supreme court. Meaning the property owner would have to spend thousands to secure a $1,000 reduction. The property owner just could not spend more time and money on this. They wore him out. He would have had 30 days to secure a lawyer and file an Article 7 or article 78. It was just too costly. So we did not proceed. Justice was not served in this case and was a good demontration of the potential abuses of this system.

 

Article 78 is the appeals process for SCAR. You likely will need a lawyer to do this. Article 78 is a device for challenging and reviewing administrative action in court.

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Grievance Day Advocates

Michael DeRosa Advocate (c) (315) 406-7355

Mike Franklin Advocate (c) (315) 876-2262