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How to Conduct Public Education Sessions; A guide for Assessors

In recent years, as a result of the tremendous increase in the number and frequency of reassessments, the importance of strong, proactive public relations on the part of assessors, contractors and others has become more widely recognized. An aspect of some assessors' public relations campaigns is the public education session.

This publication discusses the purpose of holding public education sessions and some types of sessions and forums that assessors might wish to pursue. In addition to providing tips for such sessions, a suggested curriculum for each type of recommended session is included.

Of course, public education begins in the office, but we would be remiss if we did not mention that each interaction with a taxpayer is an opportunity to help that taxpayer understand the "what's, whys and hows" of your efforts to provide fair assessments. Whether you're talking about STAR, building permits, or assessment review, take the time to help your taxpayers understand how it is that you're looking out for their best interest. (More information on developing and communicating your message, is available in "Public Relations Recommendation for Assessors".)

 Purpose of Holding Public Education Sessions

Do use Public Education Sessions to help taxpayers understand the very complex topic of assessments, and explain:

  • What state law requires and how you're complying;
  • The importance of reassessments;
  • The difference between assessments and taxes;
  • The reassessment process;
  • How you determined residential market values;
  • Why mass appraisal and fee appraisal may result in different values;
  • Why a reassessment does not disadvantage towns in regard to school and county tax apportionment.  

Do Not use Public Education Sessions to:

  • Review individual assessments (despite your audiences' tendency to want to do so)
  • Tell taxpayers how wrong they are or belittle them (this is entirely counterproductive);
  • Complain about your town board, other assessors or taxpayers;
  • Promote political platforms.

Types of Public Education Sessions

Most public education sessions we hear of are one-time sessions, generally held in the evening.

Of course, if you feel that your public would be interested in more detail, and you have the time to organize and conduct an ongoing series of sessions (each with a different topic), this could be a very detailed and effective way to educate your taxpayers.

More recently, with the addition of assessment administration to the high school social studies' curriculum assessors are beginning to make presentations to high school students as part of the students' classes. Not only does this begin the education of your future taxpayers very early, but high school students often take the lessons they've learned (and the materials you've distributed) home to their parents. A great example of the potential effectiveness of a group of motivated high school students could be seen in the Town of Rotterdam in 2005.

In addition, you may want to consider providing different types of sessions for different types of properties. For instance, it might be appropriate to hold two or more sessions for residential taxpayers, and one each for commercial and agricultural property owners.

Forums

There are many forums where you can hold public education sessions. The number of presentations you do, and the venues where you choose to hold them, are left to your best judgment. However, as a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume that the more people you reach, the more effective will be your education efforts.

Some venues, such as high school classes, already exist, and you just need to identify them and express your interest. For instance, many school districts offer an array of adult education classes and send out schedules to the households in their districts. Along with the ballroom dancing and kick boxing classes, you can be listed in that schedule. Generally, you would use the school facilities for your session. The school district typically asks you to charge a small fee ($5 per person or so), though we are aware of cases where the district has waived the fee in the interest of the local government educating its taxpayers.

Other existing venues include library meeting rooms, community college classrooms, and community service organizations, such as Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions, etc.

Other venues might require some creativity on your part. For instance, you could work with your local cable company to have an interview with you videotaped. Cable stations are frequently looking to fill their public access time slots and have been very willing to tape and air interviews with public officials. Alternative to taping an interview, you could ask the cable company to tape and air your public education session. The video could then be aired on your local cable public access stations. Print up some schedules of when the interview will air, and distribute them at town board meetings and have them available in your office.

Four Steps to a Successful Session

1. Create an Enticing Title - Before you begin planning and scheduling your educational sessions, you'll need to come up with a title for your program. The title of your session will have a significant effect on what your audience will expect, and could greatly influence the size of your audience. For instance, if you were a taxpayer, which session would you rather attend? - "The Reassessment Process" or "What a Reassessment Means to You and Your Pocketbook." Since your goal is to educate as many of your property owners as possible, pick a title that they just won't be able to resist. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Is Your Assessment Fair - How to Know and What to Do About It
  • How to Contest Your Assessment - And Win!
  • Taxes vs. Assessments - There Is a Difference
  • Assessments Go Up; Taxes Go Down - Right?
  • Your Underassessed Neighbor Thanks You for Paying His Taxes
  • Wake Up People - They're Your Taxes!
  • Your Assessor - Part of the Problem or the Solution?

(Of course, you'll want to take into consideration your audience and adjust the tone of your title accordingly.)

2. Develop Your Content - While having an attractive title may get them in the door, you'll want to make sure they stay once they get there. Planning what you're going to say is crucial - as is knowing what materials you're going to bring. See the section below entitled "Suggested Curriculum" to get some ideas for content.

As for handouts, check the ORPTS website, including the Assessor Public Relations webpage, the property taxes and assessments for property owners webpage, and the publication listing to see what might be helpful.

Some publications that come highly recommended (all of which are available from the publication listing) include:

  • Fair Assessments
  • Real Property Tax in New York State: Common Myths and Misunderstandings
  • Assessment vs. Taxes
  • How to Estimate the Market Value of Home
  • Information from your local Board of Realtors regarding market value trends in your community.

You might also wish to distribute listings of residential sales from your community. For presentation purposes you could show recent sales (perhaps those recently listed in the newspaper) and show what the assessments for those properties (particularly effective if the assessments are lower than the sales). It also might be to your advantage to show properties that have sold twice in recent years, and what the sales prices were.

3. Recruit Supporters and Assistants - You don't have to conduct your session alone. You might feel more comfortable if you have support from your colleagues in the assessment community. You may ask a retiree - an assessor, county director or ORPTS staffperson - to co-present with you, or even to do the presentation (with you in the audience). By having someone else do the presentation, it may seem more credible than if you are presenting about the work you've done.

If you're using a PowerPoint presentation, your ORPTS customer relationship manager (CRM) may be willing to assist you with set-up and running the equipment. You might also ask the CRM for existing presentations that you could work from.

In some cases, you may even wish to do a panel, rather than having one or two presenters. You or someone else could be the moderator. Possible panel members include:

  • The county director
  • An assessor from a neighboring community
  • The supervisor and/or board member (if not on the panel, in the audience)
  • A realtor
  • A builder (particularly if you've had a lot of new construction)
  • An appraiser
  • Your ORPS customer relationship manager
  • A real estate attorney

4. Market the Session - You've done a great job of planning, preparing and recruiting help. Now you just need to make sure people show up. Of course, you'll want to mention the session to taxpayers in your office. You can even have a flyer available in a variety of the offices in the town hall. If you have the budget, you can advertise your session in the local newspaper and free community publications. In addition, you could:

  • Put announcements in the town newsletter and church bulletins
  • Do a mailing - postcards or flyers are great
  • Hang posters in the grocery store, the town clerk's office, libraries, and realtors' offices
  • Mention it on the town's website

Suggested curriculum

#1 - Standard Outline (Courtesy of Dave Folger and Cindy Baire) - If your town board is resistant to you obtaining and/or maintaining fair assessments you may tailor this presentation to your audience by deleting appropriate sections.

  1. Introductions
  2. Overview of Course Materials
  3. Real Property Assessment Administration - New York State
    1. Purpose and Functions
    2. Tax Law - Basics
    3. Exemptions
  4. Assessments, Budgets, Tax Rates and Equalization Rates
    1. How assessments are created
    2. Budgets (town, county and school)
    3. Determination of Tax Rates and Factors that Change Rates
    4. Exemptions and their Effect on Taxes
    5. Equalization Rates - What are they, how are they created and how are they used
  5. Reassessment
    1. Definition
    2. Why does it have to be done
    3. Annual Equity - purpose and benefits
  6. Fair Market Value
    1. Definition
    2. Steps in Determining Fair Market Value
    3. Mass Appraisal vs. Fee Appraisal
    4. Defining and Purpose Neighborhoods
    5. Factor Influencing/Affecting Market Value
  7. How to Determine a Fair and Equitable Assessment
    1. Research - Resources (Websites, libraries, assessment office, local real estate sales and listings)
    2. Review Property Inventory
    3. Presentation of Information to Assessor for Review
  8. Open Discussion - Questions and Answers

#2 - For High School Students (also see Uniform Standard article)

Since you'll probably have only an hour for this presentation, you'll want to stick to the basics and get your message across as clearly and succinctly as possible. Bear in mind that many of the students will have their parents' ears over dinner that night, so give them a handout they can bring home to their taxpaying folks.

The school was kind enough to let you speak to the class, so you'll need to steer clear of the blame game. However, it is fair and accurate to show that schools are the biggest users of the property tax using the chart on this page

You may want to mention the Schalmont students who convinced the Rotterdam Town Board to conduct a reassessment (see mention and link above).

  1. Introductions
     
  2. What You Do and Why It's Important
    1. What the law requires
    2. How your job affects their parents
      1. Why fair assessments are so important
    3. How your job affects their school
      1. Without getting too far into equalization, talk about how schools levy and collect taxes
         
  3. Review handout (maybe the Fair assessments publication or helpful pages from Property taxes and assessments for property owners)
     
  4. How New York is different from other states, particularly in relation to schools
    a. Most states have school districts that share county boundaries (that would mean 57 school districts in New York State). Instead we have 700 school districts that cross over town and county boundaries.
    b. Show them a map of their district - available from ORPS' Equalization Unit - 518-408-3439.
     
  5. Questions and Answers - leave plenty of time, but be prepared with extra material in case the group is quiet that day.

#3 - For Multi-Week Sessions - In addition to providing this type of training through your high school adult education program, community colleges may provide facilities and marketing for this type of session.

Week #1 - RPT Overview
Week #2 - Exemption Basics
Week #3 - Why Reassessments are Crucial
Week #4 - How Market Value is Determined
Week #5 - The Grievance Process

 

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