DELMAR — Bethlehem homeowners can expect property appraisers, sent by the town, to come calling at their door some time during the next four years — exactly when they should expect it depends on where they live.
The appraisers, from GAR Associates out of Amherst, will want to come in and confirm the square footage of any habitable structures, as well as the number of rooms, bathrooms and half-bathrooms (three-quarter bathrooms, it seems, are no longer recognized for purposes of assessment.) They will also want to take a photograph and create a “digital sketch” of the property.
According to Town Assessor Laurie Lambertsen, Bethlehem had 12,551 residential properties on the rolls in 2016, but can’t be entirely sure what those properties are worth. “Our inventory is off,” she told board members at the March 22 Town Board meeting, before they voted 4-1 to approve her request to undertake a town-wide “residential assessment inventory recollection project.”
“The last time the [residential] inventory was re-collected, measured, was in the ’91-’92 reval[uation],” said Lambertsen. “So, it’s been a long time. . . Our residential really should be done and brought up to speed. We’re now going into digital sketches and we can’t really move forward with that based on old inventory.”
The inventory update plan would utilize GAR, already under contract to do assessment work for the town, to accomplish the town-wide valuation in four regional phases over four years — North Bethlehem would be completed in 2017, Old Delmar in 2018, Glenmont in 2019 and South Bethlehem/Ravena Coeymans Selkirk in 2020. Each region has a little more than 3,000 residential properties, with the most — 3,313 parcels — in North Bethlehem.
“Does assessing this data require going into every house,” asked Supervisor John Clarkson.
“Well, that’s the goal,” said Lambertsen, explaining that qualified appraisers are more accurate and have a better grasp on the necessary terminology than the typical homeowner. “People think they still have three-quarter bathrooms,” she said. “Either it’s a full or it’s a half. Three-quarter was an ‘80s term, I believe.”
Board member Julie Sasso asked Lambertsen what the reappraisals might do to property tax assessments and questioned the four-year time frame, suggesting that immediately adjusting taxes to erroneously assessed properties could result in an unfair advantage for some property owners — for instance, undervalued properties in South Bethlehem would pay lower taxes four years longer than residents of North Bethlehem.
Agreeing that was a valid concern, Clarkson noted that it cut both ways — North Bethlehem residents with overvalued property would be able to lower their tax rate four years before South Bethlehem residents.
“I was under the impression that the process was going to be to get the data in correctly, but that changes weren’t going to happen until there was a town-wide reassessment so it was equitably distributed,” said Sasso.
Lambertsen initially implied that an immediate adjustment would only be necessary if the property was grossly mis-valued, but later said she would elect to follow recommendations put forth by the state Office of Real Property, which, apparently, advises timely reporting of erroneous property values. She also said a major problem with delaying any adjustments is that the town’s residential inventory information will be publicly posted on the town’s website and could cause confusion among neighbors who might wind up paying significantly different rates on similarly valued properties for as long as four years. Ultimately, she said she didn’t expect that particular issue to arise often.
Newly seated board member Giles Wagoner, was unhappy with the decision to use GAR to conduct the residential reassessment. Wondering if any other proposals had been considered, he expressed displeasure with the way the company handled a 2014 assessment project focused on commercial and vacant properties. He was told that an RFP (Request for Proposals) had been issued, but that GAR was the only respondent.
A large landowner, Wagoner said that he saw his property taxes increase by approximately 360 percent following the 2014 reassessment. Explaining that he and other large landowners felt GAR seemed unknowledgeable about the properties they were meant to be assessing, he said, “I just think they did a lousy job.” Clarkson later attempted to explain that the company had not been contracted to gather the data, but had worked from surveys completed by landowners.
Wagoner also questioned the methodology used by the company to compare properties around the region. “They were using comparisons with Saratoga County and Columbia County,” he said. “We’re nowhere near that type of land, or that value of land. . . I just thought that was wrong, that their methodology was not correct.”
Lambertsen responded that the value of vacant or farmland properties is difficult to evaluate because they rarely retain their original function but, rather, are often sold to developers. In the absence of definitive data regarding the future of a certain property, she said the assessors use a mixed formula and try to adjust for regional factors.
After more than 40 minutes of discussion, the board voted to approve the project, which, at $10 per appraised property, is expected to cost approximately $125,510 over four years. The $33,130 price tag for this year has already been written into the approved 2017 budget. Lambertsen said she hopes the project will be complete in time for the next state mandated revaluation.
Wagoner, looking unhappy, was the lone dissent; Sasso ultimately voted in favor, but with evident reluctance.
“It seems to me that the goal you’re striving for here,” said board member David VanLuven, “is to have accurate information about all of the houses so that when comparisons are being made, they’re being made accurately and fairly. So, it’s an effort to introduce greater accuracy and fairness into the project.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Giles Wagoner is the Town Board’s sole Republican member. Wagoner was the Democratic candidate in last year’s election to replace William Reinhardt.