BROCTON - "It's lead, follow or get out of the way" for a group of concerned Portland town residents.
That was the summation of Portland resident Mark Rand at the recent Portland Town Council meeting, as he urged Portland council members to continue in its challenge against the town's equalization rate that threw Portland taxpayers' portion of Fredonia Central School taxes into a whirlwind last year.
Fellow resident Bill Ploetz reported to the council.
"It looks as though we have lost our initial hearing to get any type of relief," he said.
"If the lawyer feels that there's a logically based reason for our challenge I think we have a fair suit here," he added after the packed meeting room full of residents indicated by a show of hands that they would like the council to support their stance and move forward with a legal challenge of the equalization rate.
"If the assessor can do anything to give us a better rate, she can be a hero in this case; and make a big change which would help us," Ploetz said.
"It really is lead, follow or get out of the way at this point. Because the assessor didn't challenge, it was easy for them (New York State Office of Real Property Tax Services) to kick out our appeal. Even if there would've been no challenge, but to accept the rate 'under protest,' we would've been in a better position. It's not that Portland had low sales compared to other towns that year; Portland actually had more, in the top 20 percentile versus others. But, the state used a computer-assisted mass appraisal system the last four years exclusively, which they didn't for others. The state could take the position that they don't have to judge towns on equal footing, which translates to no respect for property and law.
Resident MaryAnn Jankowski addressed the council, urging members to find a budgetary avenue to pay for a legal challenge, reminding the room that the group has tackled this challenge on a volunteer basis, without pay.
Town Supervisor Dan Schrantz opened the meeting with prepared statements as well.
One was an addressed statement from Brocton Central School Business Officer Betty DeLand, who was responding to a recently published editorial in the OBSERVER.
"Equalization rates are set by the state. They are used by school districts, which have more than one town in their district to bring all townships up to full market value and to allow the school district to distribute its tax levy as a percentage of each town according to that town's full value. The amount of the tax levy is set at the time of the budget vote based on the school's estimated revenues and expenditures for the following year. The amount of the taxes collected (or the levy) are not changed because of equalization rate fluctuations. Thus, the school district, town or village never collects more than the set levy and must adhere to all the taxcap regulations set by the state. The article gave the impression that the town and school collected more in taxes last year. They did not. ... If people paid more in taxes, it is due to the fact that their property is worth more according to state. ... This is because there has not been a revaluation of assessed value. ... If someone in the town of Portland is paying more because of the drop in the equalization rate, then someone in the town of Pomfret is paying less."
DeLand and the town supervisor also advocated in their statements the urgency for the state to find another way to fund revenue.
"Perhaps companies would again like to do business in the state of New York and people would again like to build homes here," added DeLand, relating that doing away with property tax and placing the tax burden on income tax would result in billions of dollars saved each year for the benefit of towns, villages, school districts, counties and the state if the Office of Real Property Tax Services were dismantled.
Schrantz pointed to states like Pennsylvania, which have been proactive in attempts to do just that.
"There are states that are doing it better, if not perfectly," stated the town supervisor.
Thanking the group for its foresight and work in challenging the rate, he added, "We've got to change the way we collect taxes. This is a terrible and broken system. We've got to put a fair and easy to understand system in place. It takes groups like yours to pull together and force a challenge. So far, only five municipalities have challenged the equalization rate. And why? Because the state figures if we just sit back and take it, they don't have to hear it."
Schrantz reiterated his opinion that he doesn't feel revaluation is a perfect solution either, noting that it would be a costly undertaking that could reward property owners who let their property conditions fail and price out longstanding property owners who do their best to keep their properties up.
The town is under a deadline of Sept. 16 to bring further action. The town supervisor noted he will be consulting with the specializing attorney to inquire about cost estimates and gain his expert opinion.
While he noted, "The budget is very tight this year and we don't have a lot of room," he agreed he would go to the rest of the council and the taxpaying public of Portland to present the options available to the town and the concerned residents, depending on what the feeling is from legal counsel.