Working with municipal boards during reassessments: A guide for assessors
Based on recommendations from the New York assessment community, ORPTS customer relationship managers, and the IAAO standard on public relations.
- Getting the Board on board
- Step 1: Do your homework
- Step 2: It's not just what you say, but how you say it
- Step 3: Effectively communicate your message
- The benefits of frequent reassessments
- Who, what, when
- Common misunderstandings of reassessments
- Keeping the Board on board
- Whom to contact for additional information
As a professional assessor wanting to do the best possible job for your community, you recognize that a relationship with your town/village board or city council is crucial. While some assessors attempt to maintain this rapport through written communication, the most productive relationships result from frequenting the board in person.
These recommendations, gathered from the statewide and national assessment communities, take the best suggestions and practices and present them in one succinct document. Some of the suggestions may "fit your town to a T;" others may not be "one size fits all." Please take a few minutes to review the recommendations from your assessment community associates.
Although many recommendations focus on reassessments, most assessors will find something of use to enrich their relationship with the municipal board or city council.
Winning the commitment of your municipal board early in the reassessment process will result in a smoother path to the final roll. To enlist your board's support, address them in person as soon as possible, and then continue to foster the relationship. Addressing the board's concerns or misconceptions sooner - rather than later - will aid you both.
To convince a potentially reluctant board that it is in the taxpayers best interest to do a reassessment, you need to believe in and to understand the reassessment process yourself. Address your doubts or questions before the meeting. Other assessors, county directors, or your ORPTS Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) can provide guidance and information. (Alternatively, if you've been through many reassessments, you could offer your assistance to fellow assessors.)
For a board needing a broader perspective on assessment administration, use the ORPTS Self-Review Guide (available from your regional office), and share the results with them formally or informally. The guide can demonstrate your needs as an assessor to them.
Very few individuals can address an audience without advanced preparation and rehearsal. Organizing your thoughts and materials ahead of time, and rehearsing makes a significant difference no matter what your public speaking talent and experience might be.
It's likely that your board may not have a full understanding of the reassessment process; using written materials to get your point across is a good idea. Your county director or CRM may have some materials that would be helpful. If you are distributing a number of materials, use a folder for each board member. Hard copies are also helpful if presenting a slide show, video, or computerized presentation.
Your materials should include an explanation of the importance and necessity of frequent reassessments (more on this below), a suggested timeline, and an estimate of additional funds, if needed (for contractors, additional staff, equipment, etc.).
Keep your materials simple enough for board members, reporters, and anyone in the audience to understand; present detailed information in your future meetings. Also, keep extra copies of materials on hand for your audience.
Just because you're the only one to sign the final roll, it doesn't mean that you need to approach the board alone. In the early stages of working with your board on a reassessment, bringing your reassessment supporters can make a significant difference.
Think out of the box on this. Are you acquainted with a realtor, appraiser, or business- person who realizes that the assessments in your community are no longer fair? They might be willing to partner with you on your presentation. After all, it's in the best interest of their business and customers that you keep assessments fair and up-to-date.
Of course, your supporter doesn't have to be from your community; county directors, vendors, or experts from the state can make an excellent case for fair assessments. Nearby town supervisors or mayors with a favorable reassessment experience can also help.
You have the opportunity to be your own best advocate when you address the board. This is your chance to highlight your responsibilities and accomplishments, as well as to assuage their fears. Put yourself in their shoes a board member could feel that a re-election, perhaps even political career, is on the line with this reassessment. This is the equivalent of putting their fate in your hands.
You've prepared your materials, rehearsed your presentation, and enlisted support, but you're not quite done yet. Here are some presentation ground rules that will distinguish you as a trustworthy professional:
- Keep it simple: Remember, once upon a time, you didn't understand assessments and equalization rates either.
- Use plain language: Technical jargon won't impress, and will likely leave your board feeling confused.
- Expect and entertain questions: It shows that your board is engaged and gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism, thereby earning their trust.
- Be accurate and honest: If you're not certain of an answer, don't make it up or be vague; just ensure the individual that you'll respond as soon as possible (and be sure to do it).
- Be courteous: Remember the golden rule.
- Be respectful: It's probably the best way to persuade those that are on the fence; and
- Be patient: (See No. 1).
Here are some topics to address early in the presentation: the benefits of frequent reassessments, the roles of key players, associated timelines, additional funds and/or staff (if applicable), and common myths and misconceptions.
If your board isn't convinced of the virtues of reassessment, garnering support may be more challenging than the reassessment itself. Remember to put yourself in the board's shoes why they should listen to you if it means jeopardizing their re-elections? Focus on the benefits for the board and their constituents.
Conducting frequent reassessments is
Local control of the equalization rate vs. the State exercising its statutory authority:
While this may be the most difficult benefit to explain, it is the benefit that will make the most sense to many board members, especially if they've experienced taxpayer unrest due to fluctuations in tax rates resulting from equalization. (Try explaining that to a taxpayer!) A board member might not realize that frequent reassessments means they'll likely get equalization rates of 100 more often. Explain the repercussions of assessments that do not keep pace with the market value.
The best way to ensure that taxpayers pay only their fair share (otherwise known as equity):
We talk about it all the time; now it's time to convince your board. Sure, you can wait to do a reassessment, but the sticker shock for taxpayers will be just that much worse. And, when dollars are in short supply resulting in increased emphasis and visibility of the property tax, it is that much more important to ensure fair assessments. Of course, it's politically expedient to ensure your voters that they are paying only their fair share.
Rapidly becoming the norm:
Not only is it based on international standards for how professional assessors should do their jobs, but also it is becoming more common throughout New York State and the nation. Over the past four years, more than half of the state has conducted reassessments.
You can cite Real Property Tax Law (RPTL) Sections 301 and 305. Don't hesitate to mention RPTL Section 505 requiring you to sign a verification that the assessment roll is uniform EACH YEAR.
The best way to accurately capture new construction:
One assessor recommends that when seeking funding for a reassessment, bring a stack of building permits.
Much more understandable for taxpayers:
The Annual Aid Program requires towns and cities to keep their assessments at market value. Think of it this way: a taxpayer with a home worth $100,000 but assessed at $90,000 might think that he's getting a deal. However, if the equalization rate is 80 percent because assessments haven't been kept up-to-date, the taxpayer might not realize that he's really over assessed by 12.5 percent (90,000 divided by .80 is 112,500). It's very easy to be confused when assessments aren't kept fair and at market value (and it's also much more difficult to explain).
A means to decrease tax rates:
By keeping assessments up-to-date, many municipalities now enjoy tax rates that actually go down each year. What taxpayer wouldn't be happy about that?
A great way to get additional state aid:
This is the obvious selling point it's more money for the board to run their government. A couple of cautions though:
- If you feel as though you're going to need, at least, part of the funds to run your office and keep the values up-to-date in future years, say so now. Otherwise, don't expect that the board will automatically want to use the funds to enhance your office, staff, etc. Better to be forthcoming now, than to be cash-strapped later.
- Don't sell the board merely on the aid. They need to recognize the inherent value of fair assessments (more on that below), and (ideally) view the aid as an additional incentive.
Prepare your board so they will know what to expect and when, and include the schedule. If you don't have a lot of specifics yet, give them some general ideas, including:
- that you will be reviewing and adjusting property values, as needed, throughout the municipality;
- when you'll know what areas and types of properties are increasing;
- when you'll be reporting back to them (ideally monthly and, of course, you're always available should they have any questions);
- the kind of public notices you'll be sending and when this is extremely important, so that board members can be prepared to deal with constituents;
- the role of any contractors you might be using, as well as the role of ORPTS;
- when appraisers will be visiting neighborhoods; and,
- when the grievance period begins and ends (also very important).
The importance of your public relations program should not be underestimated and should be discussed with your board early in the process. Let them know what their role should be. In addition to the schedule for notices, let them know what your plan is for public relations, including:
- when you'll be holding public meetings prior to the reassessment (which should be held as early as possible preferably prior to the board officially making the decision to reassess);
- when informal value review meetings with the public will be held during the reassessment;
- how you'll be using the media (newspapers, radio and television) to do public outreach;
- if you'll be presenting any information on the internet or using email;
- how assessment office staff will be trained and/or instructed to deal with the public;
- what records will be available for public review, and how the public can access them; and
- where grievance forms will be made available.
As for their public relations role, you'll probably want to have the board members refer questions and complaints from the public to you. This ensures standard and consistent responses, thereby encouraging improved public perception of the reassessment. Remember, you establish assessments, not the board. In addition, if the board members have concerns or complaints, they should come directly to you.
Knowing the common misunderstandings around your efforts (and reassessments in general) helps you to know what to address up front. Here are some common myths, and their explanations:
Myth 1: Reassessments mean higher taxes
Reassessment simply redistributes the tax distribution so that each taxpayer pays no more than his or her fair share it does not raise additional taxes. In fact, doing a reassessment could mean your tax rate decreases significantly, particularly if it's been a while since the last reassessment. Without an increase in the tax levy, if one homeowner sees an increase in taxes due to a reassessment, it means another homeowner has seen a decrease. It's that simple.
Myth 2: Reassessment is selective assessment
Certainly, you know this is true, but does your board? Unfortunately, if the program is not explained adequately, it could result in the public misperception of selective assessment. The memo in the Appendix details how you can avoid this pitfall. Essentially, you need to stress the fact that you are analyzing ALL of the assessments and are making adjustments as necessary to maintain ALL assessments at market value. To avoid misleading your board, try to:
- Focus on your efforts to maintain equity by keeping ALL values. It is best to note that ALL parcels are analyzed to arrive at any conclusions in property values; and
- Explain that assessments are adjusted to reflect market value. Emphasize that ALL assessments are observed and evaluated, but not necessarily changed. Be sure your board understands that, if certain properties or neighborhoods were not adjusted, it is because the market values did not change.
Myth 3: Reassessment means that all assessments will be increased
While all parcels will be analyzed to compare their market values to their assessed values, only those whose market values have increased will see increases. This myth is especially untrue in the case of annual assessment changes, since not all properties will necessarily increase in value every year.
Myth 4: Reassessment means one-third of the assessments will go up, one-third will go down, and one-third will remain the same
The percentage of properties going up, down, and staying the same can be very different from one town to another. The same is true with the percentage of properties seeing tax increases, decreases and staying the same. The best thing to say is that you'll let them know how the numbers look as soon as you know.
Myth 5: Seniors will lose some of the savings from their STAR exemption.
It is safe to say that when a roll is relatively equitable from year to year, your homeowners who are receiving STAR will not suffer a loss in savings. And, besides, STAR isn't just for seniors, anyway!
It's happened before, and most of us wince just to think about it an assessor goes through all of the efforts to do a fair reassessment, but the board wants to reject the values and go back to the prior year's assessment roll. Ouch! There are a few simple rules that may help assessors avoid this situation.
First and foremost, even if the board says they don't want to know what you're doing, it is your responsibility to keep them informed. Board members may not understand what it is you do, but at the very least, they need to be made aware of which assessments are changing and to what extent as early in the process as possible.
Establish a monthly report to the board at their meeting, whether you are doing a reassessment or not, as well as attend all of the board meetings. The board needs to understand that the reassessment is an ongoing process, not just something that happens at grievance time. At the monthly meeting, you again have the opportunity to tout the good work you are doing and develop a positive relationship. If the board doesn't know what your office does, don't let it be because you didn't let them know. Give them monthly updates on your public relations program and the specifics of the reassessment. If you have made any changes to your reassessment plan, let them know as early in the process as possible. If the board refuses to allow you to do a monthly report at their meetings, submit something in writing to each of the board members each month.
In addition to information about the reassessment, let them know:
- how many STAR and other exemption applications your office is processing,
- how many sales there have been this year compared to previous years,
- how much new construction is taking place,
- how much overtime you and your staff had to work, and
- anything else that will help the board understand your office and how hard you work.
Touch base with your mayor or supervisor monthly. It doesn't need to be a long conversation, but he or she will likely be very thankful (whether you know it or not) to be kept abreast of any issues going on in your office. In addition to the topics you'll be sharing with the board, you'll have the opportunity to get into more detail and to answer any questions your municipal chief executive officer might have. This is a good time to share the details of your annual plan with your supervisor or mayor. The rapport you'll build from simple and informal monthly discussions may really work to your benefit in the future of your office and career.
If possible, work with your CRM or county director to prepare simulated apportionments for school and county taxes based on your estimated equalization rate with and without a reassessment. Although such figures indeed would be estimates, they can be very helpful when making your case to your board.
Of course, it is possible that your best efforts to deal with your board may not be rewarded. Even it that turns out to be the case, following the above suggestions will go a long way toward helping you to be recognized as a committed professional by your board. The groundwork you lay this year may very well be the foundation of your reassessment next year or the year after.
If you have questions, contact your ORPTS customer service team. We also recommend the International Association of Assessing Officers' Standard on Public Relations (2011).