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Volume 11 - Opinions of Counsel SBRPS No. 99

Opinions of Counsel index

Assessment review, board of (administrative hearing panels) (participation in informal review process); Assessment disclosure (meetings) (administrative hearing panels) - Real Property Tax Law, §§ 511, 523-a:

The participation of administrative hearing panels in the informal assessment review process is inappropriate, if not strictly illegal, and violative of the intent of the assessment review procedures of the Real Property Tax Law.

We have been informed that a city plans to establish six panels to hear “informal complaints” regarding the city’s planned 2007 reassessment. Each panel would consist of one member of the board of assessment review [hereinafter BAR] and two temporary members. {1}  After the informal reviews are conducted, it is stated that the panels will then hear formal assessment complaints. The question concerns the propriety of having the panels participate in both the informal and formal assessment review processes. In our opinion, such practice is inappropriate, and if not strictly illegal, certainly violative of the intent of the Real Property Tax Law’s assessment review provisions.

In the year of a revaluation or update of assessments, the assessor is required to mail assessment disclosure notices (RPTL, § 511). {2}  Part of that disclosure process is the opportunity for the taxpayer to discuss the reassessment with “the assessor and representatives of any independent contractors employed in the revaluation program” (RPTL, § 511(3)). {3}  Clearly, the assessor and those who represent the assessor in such discussions participate on behalf of the assessing unit. While such informal discussions should help to educate the taxpayer about the reassessment program and may result in the taxpayer’s acquiescence in his or her assessment, {4} a dissatisfied taxpayer is still entitled to formal assessment review before the BAR on grievance day. {5}

Neither the assessor nor any member of the assessor’s staff may be appointed to the BAR (RPTL, § 523(1)(b)). “The primary purpose of this provision is to completely separate the functions of assessing real property in the first instance and reviewing such assessments” (1 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 120).

The concept of multiple administrative hearing panels (RPTL, § 523-a) empowered to hear complaints contemporaneously was developed to address situations where an unusually large number of assessment complaints are anticipated, perhaps after a revaluation of assessments. {6}  The use of administrative hearing panels was not and is not in any way intended to subvert the independent BAR (see, Memorandum of Sen. Charles D. Cook for S.7901 (enacted as L.1986, c.191) and reprinted in 1986 NYS Legislative Annual, p.129). To the contrary, their obvious intent is to assist in overall assessment review by reducing the number of complaints presented to the BAR in a particular year. (A “spike” in the number of assessment complaints is a fairly common occurrence if property has not been revalued in many years and/or there has been significanT appreciation of property values since the last reassessment).

Certainly, a reasonable person who met with a panel during the informal review phase would question the objectivity of such panel during subsequent formal assessment review. {7}  The city’s proposal to have the same individuals involved in both the informal and formal assessment review procedures would cast doubt on the independence of the BAR and therefore undermine the entire reassessment effort.

February 1, 2007

{1}  By law, a BAR must have three, four, or five members (RPTL, § 523(1)(b); 11 Op.Counsel SBRPS No. 95) and, where administrative hearing panels are appointed to assist the BAR, the number of panel members may not exceed twice the number of BAR members (RPTL, § 523-a(2)). Consequently, no assessing unit may have six three-member administrative hearing panels, five being the maximum number.

{2}  The assessor may send such notices in other years. Where assessments are maintained at the same level of assessment each year, such notices need be mailed only once every three years (RPTL, § 511(8)).

{3}  Assessing units are empowered to employ experts to assist assessors (RPTL, § 572), and this practice is common in traditional reassessment programs.

{4}  If the tentative assessment subsequently assigned to a parcel differs from its preliminary assessment on the disclosure notice, the assessor is required to notify the taxpayer of the new value after the tentative roll is filed (RPTL, § 511(4)).

{5}  We note that BAR members must be residents of the assessing unit (Public Officers Law, §§ 3(1), 30(1)(d); 7 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 104) and members of BAR administrative hearing panels are subject to the same qualifications as BAR members (RPTL, § 523 a(2)). Independent contractors (and their employees), who may be employed to assist in a reassessment effort, including the informal review process of section 511, are subject to no residency requirement.

{6}  The powers and duties of administrative hearing panels are discussed in 10 Op.Counsel SBRPS No. 54.

{7}  Nor would the problem be solved by having a different panel hear a taxpayer’s complaint, since each panel would have previously functioned as the City’s representative during some informal review.