BROCTON - It's not very often that a monthly Town of Portland council meeting boasts a standing-room only crowd. As the 7 p.m. start time was announced by Portland Town Supervisor Dan Schrantz Wednesday, a few attendants didn't have to rise out of their seats to state the Pledge of Allegiance, as the town court chambers were packed to capacity.
A small handful of attendants were there for the establishment of Portland's Municipal Ambulance Service. The large majority made up residents of the town who saw more than noticeable spikes in their school tax bills this year generated from Fredonia and Brocton school districts. While the school districts and the town are operating under the 2 percent tax cap limitations, Portland had a somewhat drastic change in its equalization rate this year an estimated 14.81 percent shift, bringing the equalization rate from 62 down to 54 percent. A higher tax burden in effect fell on Portland taxpayers as a result of that change in percentage, even despite the 2 percent tax cap being in place. The town of Portland is unique in that some residents pay into three different school districts - Westfield, Brocton and Fredonia.
Portland taxpayer Bruce Mulkin, a spokesperson for the group, presented the town with a packet of information that they have been working independently on to try and get to the bottom of why their township has taken this detour.
OBSERVER Photo by Ann Belcher
Bruce Mulkin distributes a packet of independent research on the calculation of the town of Portland’s equalization rate to members of the Portland Town Council.
"Based on what the state has provided for our research, the state has been provided with inaccurate data from the town's assessor for two of the numbers involved in calculating this rate," explained Mulkin.
"While we do not have the results of our request under the Freedom of Information Law from September 27, we have been told that only residential property sales could be used in the calculation, and when we spoke to Bob Wright (customer relations manager for NYS Office of Property Tax Services) he said that no residential properties or sales were used, that it only listed gas wells, or banked properties."
The group indicated they had reached out to Wright to ascertain what was provided to the state from town assessor Deanna Wheeler, who was not present at Wednesday's meeting, to use in the mathematical calculation of Portland's equalization rate, a figure which in theory is supposed to raise property's assessed value back up to full market value if no revaluation has been done. The group alleges that when using their best estimations, and going by what is listed on Chautauqua County's Real Property Tax rolls, the rate should come out to be 62.8 percent, the same figure as last year, which would not have negatively impacted school tax bills.
"The state was provided with the wrong data. We need the board's help to present this to the state, you are the ones who can advocate for this," added Mulkin.
Portland taxpayer, David Foley, who is also the county's district attorney, concurred and noted that several members of the group represented Wednesday night have met with Wheeler prior to the meeting to find answers.
"If the town says 'we don't control the assessor,' you should control the assessor if she is sending inaccurate information. We have more than sufficient data that would suggest the rate would've been kept the same. And that's where the town's responsibility is," he said.
According to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, only a municipality can contest an equalization rate under the process of administrative review.
"No one of us as individuals can institute a lawsuit; you need to do this for us under the Property Tax Law. We need some relief for what she has done and we need to ask you to look into her actions and see if we can come up with the figure that she should've. If this is wrong, there should be a way to undo it," added Foley.
Mulkin noted that once the group's FOIL request is received, he would like to ask for a special meeting with the board and Wheeler. He also expressed displeasure that this information wasn't made available at the polling location when taxpayers were voting on school budgets, and that no grievance process information is listed anywhere on the assessor's website.
The town supervisor replied to Mulkin that he would investigate the matter and thanked the group for their detailed work provided to the board.
Portland resident Tom Webb added, "If I could ask you to please expedite this and get on it as quickly as possible. Anything we can supply you we'd be glad to help you with. If the assessor has her own agenda, we need to get to the bottom of this. If this was done correctly, it should be fair to everybody."
Councilman Gary Miller apologized to the residents stating, "We knew the rate dropped but we didn't know that it would affect everything that drastically. I would maybe advise people it might be time for a revaluation."
Foley replied, "That's maybe why you want to look at this, as the assessor may have a stake in that."
Schrantz has spoke publicly on the matter of a revaluation stating it would burden the town with additional costs in labor and could potentially hurt growth within the town.
As of Thursday, the town supervisor indicated he would be communicating with Wright in order to get answers for his council and for the concerned residents. Results of that meeting will be forthcoming.
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