Reassessing a Reassessment

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Given the fiscal fun being had at Town Hall right now, this could be the absolute worse time to talk about a reassessment of property values in East Hampton. The response in the past has always been “No way!” and politicians who didn’t want to become former politicians would not push for one. But it has become inevitable here.

A reassessment does hurt some property owners. I know that from personal experience. Early in 1997, I bought a .87-acre piece of land about 500 feet west of Noyac Road, near the intersection of Brickiln Road. The price was $62,500. Yes, I was damn lucky. We went the modular route and by that December we closed on a 1,976-square-foot house and the total price was $275,000. (Ah, those were the days!)

For the next eight or nine years, the taxes paid were based on that value. Then Southampton did a town-wide reassessment. Suddenly, the property—which had not changed over the years, such as the addition of a pool—was valued at $815,000. For a few moments after receiving this notice, I felt like Midas. Then I saw what would have to be paid in taxes, and I felt like Oliver Twist. For those who have been reassessed, I feel your pain.

There is also the valid argument that elderly people are especially vulnerable to reassessment. An example often cited is an 80-year-old widow living in a house in Springs or Amagansett that has been hers for decades or in her family for even longer. She is on a fixed income but thankfully the property taxes are relatively minuscule.

If a reassessment was to be done and the true value in today’s dollars of her house and land is determined, her taxes are doubled or worse. As a result, Grandma is forced to sell, and may even have to move out of the area.

I sort of feel this pain too, as my mother is 80 and has lived in her home for 46 years and thus far has enjoyed low taxes thanks to the longtime evaluation (and the STAR program and my late father being a veteran of World War II and Korea).

Some East Hampton officials, especially those who depend on being elected to earn a salary, are loath to even whisper “reassessment.” The stories of office-holders who paid the price of taking this path are almost biblically allegorical. Marty Lang entered the pantheon of martyrs two decades ago in Southampton.

His decade of power came to an end in 1987 when residents selected Mardythe DiPirro as supervisor with almost two-thirds of the votes cast. It was a pretty amazing victory, given that DiPirro’s only office-holding experience had been as president of the Westhampton Beach School Board. But that year, almost any Democrat could have been elected because Lang had spearheaded a town-wide reassessment and one by one the hamlets were seeing their tax bills jump . . . and the last hamlet to pay higher taxes was Hampton Bays, where Lang lived. He didn’t live there much longer, moving to Florida after he was ousted.

About 15 years ago, when Tony Bullock was supervisor, East Hampton had its own property value tax fuss. George Hammer, who at that time owned the Shepherd’s Neck Inn in Montauk, represented homeowners (for a 50-percent contingency fee) who thought their taxes were too high. He filed grievances and appeared at town meetings to advocate for them. He was ignored. Hammer filed actions in Small Claims Court and kept winning an average of $1,000 per house.

The town, however, refused to pay. Instead, it filed its own lawsuit, contending that Hammer had no right to appear at grievance hearings. The town lost but it didn’t give up. After spending $30,000 on legal fees, East Hampton saw its lawsuit tossed out by the State Appellate Division.

Reassessment was a campaign issue in Southampton last year. When Democrat Jim Henry officially launched his campaign in August with a speech in front of Town Hall, he had a Hampton Bays resident with him who claimed that his property taxes had soared from $4,000 to $12,000 a year after the most recent reassessment. Such disgruntled residents give those in power nightmares.

Henry said that, if elected, he would push for a change in the property tax formula developed by the state that would include a consideration of property owners’ incomes. He didn’t get elected, and even so the state is highly unlikely to okay such a change.

There are states like Connecticut, which mandates that reassessments be done every 10 years. New York does not, and leaves it up to the individual municipalities. What happens over time is a growing disparity between what owners of newer properties pay in taxes compared to older ones. Efforts to have the older properties reassessed only after they are sold to new owners—a practice once known as “Welcome, stranger”—was derailed in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1989.

In East Hampton, then, the gap has gotten wider. Depending on when they bought their properties, two neighbors with similar homes and grounds could be paying taxes that are 50 percent or more apart. This is only going to cause trouble down the road. And the disparity is costing the town money . . . which it can use, especially now with a deficit and serious belt-tightening going on.

A few weeks ago, Jeanne Nielson, who has been a town tax assessor stretching back into the ‘80s, suggested in an interview in this newspaper that the town was overdue for a reassessment. She used as an example the Amagansett estate of Adelaide de Menil and Ted Carpenter that had sold for $103 million but had a $6 million assessment. Many other properties in the town have increased in value by millions or tens of millions of dollars in the last 20 years, yet taxes are paid based on badly obsolete assessments.

The Town Board should tackle this issue right away for two reasons. One, a reassessment is the right thing to do because it updates and balances out the tax burden on all property owners; it is a sound fiscal practice. Second, the political capital of the board right now is so low, an act that some see as unpopular won’t make much of a difference. Why not go for it?

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