By NICOLE GUGINO
OBSERVER Assistant News Editor
PORTLAND - Understanding equalization rates can be complicated but Portland Assessor Deanna Wheeler says there is only one reason for the drop in the town's rate.
"Sales are higher than what the homes are assessed at," Wheeler explained simply.
She said this is the only reason the town's equalization rate dipped 8 percent from 62 to 54 percent.
"There were no incorrect figures used. The assessor does not pick the sales the state uses. The assessor does not set the equalization rate, the state does. All recorded sales start at the county, a copy is sent to the state and a copy is sent to the assessor. The county and the state are aware of all recorded sales. The state shares the sales they use to determine the equalization rate with the assessor should they have any input," she explained.
According to the state Office of Real Property Tax Services, the equalization rate is the state's measure of a municipality's level of assessment by comparing the total assessed value to the total market value or the price one could sell their property. This measure is used to calculate a town's share of taxes in districts with more than one municipality, like the county and school districts.
County Real Property Tax Director Jim Caflisch said the state has a sophisticated method for determining a town's equalization rate and he confirmed the county sent the record of sales for the town of Portland and the state has made its analysis.
He explained as different neighborhoods in a municipality become more or less attractive and property values shift, the equalization rate seeks to equalize the shift until the assessments are righted.
However, if assessments are not accurate, the further the equalization rate will slip.
"Without a reval(uation) the equalization rate will continue to drop," Wheeler warned. "There is a huge amount of work involved in a reval. The longer its put off the more work there is to do."
The last time the town of Portland did a revaluation of properties was in 1996 and it was not a full reval, according to Wheeler's records.
Caflisch said although there is time, labor and money needed for a reval, the same is also true for challenging an equalization rate. He said because the process is lengthy and full of data collection, no towns in Chautauqua County have challenged the state on an equalization rate and he said it is very rare for the state to overturn its original decision.
A revaluation of property has been brought up by the Portland Town Board before but there has not been support because of the cost associated with the work.
Caflisch said the towns of Cherry Creek, Gerry and Charlotte recently did revaluations and each had at least a 20 percent increase in the equalization rate. He explained this means the market values and assessments are equal, where assessments could have gone up, down or remained the same.
Wheeler and Caflisch agreed there are benefits to a reval.
"Exemption amounts also drop with an equalization decrease. For example, this year basic STAR amount in the town of Portland is $18,600, down from $19,200 last year. If the town were at 100 percent the basic STAR would be $30,000," Wheeler explained.
Wheeler and Caflisch agreed a reval is the fairest way to adjust property values.
"For example, a house in the village assessed at $80,000 and would probably sell for $80,000. A house in the rural area also assessed at $80,000 but would only sell for $50,000 due to no maintenance in years, fallen in out building poor roof, etc. A cottage on the lake also assessed at $80,000 but just sold for $260,000. All three have the same assessment, all three pay the same amount of taxes - that's hardly fair.
"Fair is when assessments reflect value. The only way to correct the unfairness would be to reval an entire town, the only way to do it fairly is all at once.
"Assessors do assessments, not taxes. We have no say in the budgets or the rates.
"It was indicated the assessor has an agenda. My agenda is fairness. The tax system stinks, no one wants high taxes. The best I can do as assessor is make it fair," Wheeler said.
There have been insinuations from property owners Wheeler has a stake in a reval of the town, however she said when she brought up the topic in the past her intention was to save the town money.
"I am a licensed appraiser with 20 years experience with revaluations. What I purposed to the town board was a way to do an in-house reval at a fraction of the cost of hiring a company to save the town money," she said.
She explained for some people a reval will not lower taxes but a lower equalization rate will raise everyone's taxes.
"With a reval one-third of the town would pay more in taxes. One third would have lower taxes. There is no windfall for anyone. Without a reval the equalization rate will continue to drop. That blankets the entire town and all pay more in taxes," she said.
"The figures are what they are," she added, saying this will be explained at Tuesday's meeting.
The Town Board will meet with Wheeler, Caflisch, state Real Property Tax Analyst Robert Wright, Brocton Superintendent John Hertlein and School Business Administrator Betty Deland in the school auditorium at 7 p.m.