A group of large landowners in Bethlehem have hired a law firm to help with their protest against the recent townwide assessments.
Keith Wiggand, a former Bethlehem Republican Party chairman who is also the group’s spokesman, said the landowners are not yet filing a lawsuit but wanted a lawyer on retainer. The law firm Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP has also filed a Freedom of Informational Law request on behalf of the group.
“This is not a guarantee we’ll take action,” said Wiggand. “We want to give the town the chance to make the right decision first.”
A number of landowners in the town have said they do not feel the reassessment project was performed adequately after some saw a major increase in their property value. The group has asked the town to stop the project for a year so the firm contracted to do the reassessments, GAR Associates, could start over.
In the Freedom of Information request filed on behalf of the group, the more 30 than landowners involved sought all the correspondences between GAR Associates and the town, their contract, any town board minutes regarding the reassessments and documents concerning the methodology used by GAR.
Town Attorney James Potter said it would be impossible for the town to stop the project since assessment numbers had to be submitted to the state on May 1. Residents did have the chance to argue why they felt their assessment should be lowered through preliminary hearings. They’ll have a second chance on Grievance Day scheduled for May 27.
Wiggand said he is not arguing about the process because a number of assessments, including his own, were lowered through the preliminary hearings, but he said he feels GAR “did an incompetent job.”
The Town Board opted to do a full reassessment last spring to ensure all property was assessed at full market value. The last reassessment was done in 2006, and although they are not required, the state recommends one be done every four years.
Supervisor John Clarkson said the town would not be responding to the letter sent from the group’s lawyer because nothing further was asked of them. The town is in the process of responding to the FOIL request.
At the Town Board meeting on Wednesday, May 14, Clarkson said of the more than 1,600 preliminary hearings that took place, 1,144 resulted in an assessment reduction. As for vacant land, of the 371 reviews, 285 residents saw some reduction. Clarkson said those reductions totaled more than $50 million in value.
Wiggand said his assessment was lowered by going through the preliminary hearing, but still felt it was too high. In 2013, his 30 acres of land on Hartman Road was assessed at $25,000. His preliminary assessment then raised the value to $151,600. After going through the preliminary hearing, his assessment was lowered to $39,200.
“I still plan to go through grievance,” Wiggand said.
Clarkson has said that the preliminary assessments of some parcels of vacant land were originally not correct because the information the town had on record was out-of-date. He said part of the reason for doing this assessment is to update the town’s information so residents won’t have to deal with the same issues during the next assessment.
According to the Assessor’s Office, 53 percent of homeowners saw no change or a decrease in value on their property. Even those who saw a slight increase should see a tax reduction for the coming year.
The landowners group and the town are encouraging residents to go to the grievance panel if they feel it is necessary.
Clarkson said the process is important because it will not only help residents lower their assessment but also help make sure the town’s records are correct for the future. He said residents get very little time to speak during the process, so they should bring copies of all paperwork they think will help their case to the assessor’s board. They should also write a coversheet for each property that explains the reason why the assessment should be changed.
Wiggand said he is encouraging residents go through the process because, if not, they would be giving up their right to do so, and it could be their only avenue to correct their assessment if the landowners are unsuccessful in their efforts.
“I’m comfortable with the process, but the problem is the way the assessment was done,” he said. “I think there are a lot of holes in it.”