Editor, The Spotlight;
Reassessments are never easy, but using inaccurate and out of date values is far worse. It’s the Town’s responsibility to make sure assessments and related tax burdens are shared equitably. Homeowners in Bethlehem have been carrying too high a tax burden, and the vast majority will benefit from the reassessment this year. However, the process is causing some friction and concern, as it almost always does.
When the Town committed to reassessment several years ago, we knew that parts of the commercial sector, including big box stores, shopping centers and apartment complexes were undervalued, and the only way to recapture that value was to reassess. We did not know, however, that vacant land was even more significantly undervalued, and that it had not been covered comprehensively in the 2006 and 1998 reassessments. The inescapable result in this year’s reassessment, which fully covered all types of property, was that vacant land saw a spike in assessed value.
Sharp increases in preliminary assessments for vacant land understandably shocked owners. But many of these values are being revised downward through the informal review process set up especially for the reassessment. In addition, taxpayers can still grieve their assessment formally, by appealing to an independent Board of Assessment Review. For active farms there is an agricultural exemption, which like other exemptions wasn’t included in the preliminary assessment numbers. This exemption covers about 60 farm properties still operating in Bethlehem and reduces taxable value of farmed land by about 75-85% on average, and prevents growth spurred by land values for farmed land. We would like to see more use of this exemption, as well as the DEC forest land exemption.
Town Boards do not set assessments, and you would not want them to – many will remember the bad old days when assessments were used as a tool of politics. In this year’s project, Bethlehem used a professional consultant to assist our Assessor’s Office in revaluing the 13,000 properties in Town. The consultant made multiple presentations explaining the valuation methods, and I and other Town Board members have looked at many individual cases. These evaluations tell us that universal and accepted professional methods were used, and that following corrections through the informal and formal review process we will have a properly valued tax base, fairly apportioned. But it still leaves us with a dilemma, because we recognize that sharp increases are difficult for any taxpayer.
We are concerned both with the impact on farm families and with preserving green space. In February, the Town Board adopted an Open Space Program, including a commitment to evaluate all methods of encouraging open space preservation. Although state law prevents the Town from assessing any land below value, we are exploring options to legally provide tax relief for conserved land. The Town Board and I hope to be in a position to offer such options soon.
John Clarkson, Bethlehem Town Supervisor