Facts and fears

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For politicians and most taxpayers, “reassessment” is a dirty word.

Around here, supervisors who preside over reassessments often lose their jobs soon afterward. Most recently, it happened to Southampton Town Supervisor Patrick Heaney.

Southampton began its series of reassessments 20 years ago under court order after a judge agreed that the town’s tax rolls were woefully out of date. The first supervisor to lose his job in the process was Martin Lang, back in 1987.

In East Hampton Town, nobody has ever sued to challenge the fairness of the town’s property tax rolls, which are certainly as out of whack as Southampton’s were back then. So it’s no wonder that not a single politician here has called for restoring fairness to the rolls. Until now.

Supervisor Bill McGintee, perhaps more aware he’s a lame duck than he lets on, now says he wants to convince the Town Board and the public that the time has finally come. Battered by news of his soaring budget deficit and the improper “borrowing” of Community Preservation Funds to pay bills on his watch, he might realize he’ll never win reelection. So why not fight for the right thing and get something painful but good done before he’s out at end of 2009?

The truth is, somebody’s got to take the lead on reassessment. Mr. McGintee has never been afraid to tackle tough issues—with the glaring exception, apparently, of town spending.

In favoring reassessment, he gives a passing nod to the threat of lawsuits and the need for fairness. But what seems to motivate him most is the strange idea, shared by assessor Jeanne Nielsen, that the town, facing tough times, would get a new surge in revenues by updating its tax rolls to reflect current market values. They both seem to think there’s hidden money out there that a reassessment would reveal.

That’s just plain wrong—and it’s precisely the kind of misinformation that strikes terror in the hearts of taxpayers when they hear the “R” word. If Mr. McGintee wants to pitch reassessment to a fearful public and a less than courageous Town Board, he’s starting off on the wrong foot, reinforcing the notion that towns reassess just to fill up their coffers.

Reassessment has nothing to do with how much money a municipality can raise. With or without a reassessment, the Town Board can raise all the money it wants. All it has to do is approve a budget with a big spending hike, divide total spending by the total value of the tax base, and, bingo—the resulting ratio forms the basis for a tax rate that will yield the revenue the town has decided it needs.

It’s true that, after a reassessment, the town could keep its tax rate the same to get more tax revenue—and disingenuously call itself frugal for doing so. That’s just smoke and mirrors. True frugality would be a matter of cutting spending, which would allow for a decrease in the tax rate proportional to the increase in assessed valuation.

Bottom line: Yes, a reassessment will raise the total value of the tax base. Yes, it will shift the tax burden from some taxpayers to others. But it won’t magically bring new dollars into Town Hall unless the town makes the political decision to increase revenues. If the tax burden is a pie, a reassessment simply changes the way it is sliced up and handed out—it doesn’t bake a bigger pie.

Nor does a higher assessed value on a single property necessarily mean that its owner will get a higher tax bill. If the tax rate stays the same, about a third of taxpayers will see their tax bills fall, a third will see them hold steady, and third will pay more after a reassessment, state officials say.

Mr. McGintee is wrong about magic money flowing into Town Hall. But he’s right that a reassessment is long overdue in East Hampton. It’s only a matter of time before some new folks, with recent assessments, drag the town to court for nailing them with more than their fair share of the tax burden.

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