GOWANDA - The village of Gowanda has had its share of perfect storm situations. All have been of the natural type, with the exception of a fiscal torrent that has residents up in arms, claiming their tax bills have gone up unfairly.
"We couldn't predict what was going to happen with this," Mayor Heather McKeever said. "While some village tax bills went up, others have come down."
She refers to the perfect storm that has come out of the abolition of the village taxation department, to include the village assessor's office. The move was done to end duplicate services, she said. Those services are now falling under the purview of town assessors, in both towns of both counties where the village of Gowanda is situated.
One of the reasons that decision was made, according to McKeever, was because of the cost of conducting a revaluation throughout the village to bring the equalization rate to full value, over the 15 percent mark to which it had fallen.
Over time, as property values change and valuations of nearby municipalities change, an equalization rate falls from a full market value.
"With that rate as low as it was, it would be my guess that the village had not been revalued in quite some time," said Andrew Burr, village resident.
With the abolishing of the village office, rates moved from the 15 percent village rate to town rates. For those living in the Cattaraugus County town of Persia, that rate went to 78 percent.
For those residents living in the Erie County town of Collins, the rate moved to 62 percent. Those rates are what has been used to figure out town, county and school tax amounts for the same residents for the last five years, according to McKeever.
When a valuation is figured, a rate around 15 percent is then divided by the assessed value of the property. That amount is what is due in taxes. A rate of 15 percent would generate a smaller taxable amount on property than that of 62 or 78 percent.
"Yes, some rates did go up a couple hundred dollars," McKeever said. "Others went down by the same amount. This has brought more equity to the process."
In comparison, last year, the village raised $990,489 in taxes. This year, under the new equalization rates, the levy collected was $1,001,071, a modest 1.07 percent increase; well within the so-called tax cap of 2 percent.
Another issue that was raised by residents in the taxation storm has been in the veteran exemption, McKeever said. Under the eye of the village assessor, for the last 32 years veterans were given a flat rate of discount for the exemption. The flat rate generated a disparity that has created alarm for some residents.
"What has happened is that the flat rate may have been $2,000 on a property," Burr said. "That may have been around 10 percent at the time it was put in place, but as the equalization rate has fallen, that $2,000 has moved to 50 percent, in some cases, as much as 80 percent or more."
Under the new assessments, some of those veterans did see tax increases of a few hundred dollars, McKeever said, but, "the percentage is more equitable and is a fair system."
An estimated 40 veterans in the village are believed to have received improperly assessed exemptions, McKeever said.
The fight to do away with the village taxation department was accompanied with a plan to do away with village animal control. Several public hearings on the issues were held and were well-attended, McKeever said, but the focus was on the animal control more so than on the taxation issue. Animal control, though modified to share services with the towns better, was preserved.
"This was one of the best business decisions we have made," Burr said.
"In my two-and-a-half years in office, I have always made it a point to hear everyone that wants to speak," she said. "I have heard all of the issues with this. We want to make sure everyone is able to understand what is going on, and that this is the same rate the other taxes in the area have been figured on. We have not ignored what the public was saying."
A resolution was passed at the Village Board meeting Tuesday night that would help those who have a large increase in their bills to make payments.
"We will accept partial payments through June 30, with no late fee," McKeever said. "We are allowing a two-payment system, with the second payment made by Oct. 31, 2014, with the assessed fees in accordance with the rates on the reverse of the tax bill, that have been established according to standards set by New York state."
Those who would like an explanation of how their bill may have been impacted are asked to contact the village clerk's office at 532-3353 to make an appointment for one-on-one meetings on the next two Wednesdays, from noon-4 p.m.
"These meetings will not change your bill but will help residents to better understand their bill, moving forward," McKeever said.
"It is important to remember that, for every $100 some people saw in an increase, others saw the same decrease," she continued. "What has been done has made taxation in the village more equitable. We had no idea what would happen and who would be affected, or how. We did what was right for the village."