Portland residents seek rate change

BROCTON – Even though the coming bicentennial in Portland will celebrate the past, some modern day residents and leaders are blazing a new trail.

The opening of a recent meeting boasted a standing room only crowd of about 80 residents.

The group seeks the council’s directive in challenging Portland’s current equalization rate of 54 percent, which changed from 62 percent last year and drastically and negatively affected last year’s school tax bills.

The equalization rate, which is a measure of a municipality’s level of assessment and theoretically should raise properties’ assessed value back up to 100 percent if no revaluation has been done, took a larger than average drop last year, and placed the bulk of the burden of school tax levies onto Portland taxpayers.

The town held a public meeting on the issue last year after an organized group of residents attempted to determine exactly how the state arrived at the figure they did.

Mark Rand, a Portland taxpayer who has been working diligently on the issue addressed the council last week.

“We’ve compared the numbers listed on the graphs that we’re passing out to you,” Rand told them.

The council was provided a colored graph analyzing the average annual full market value of property from the years 2005 to 2012, comparing the U.S. as a whole, the Cleveland metro area and Town of Portland residential and commercial properties with the New York State CAMA model which the state uses to calculate the rate.

“In 2006, at the peak of the real estate market, the asset bubble burst, and real estate market values in the U.S. fell substantially. In smaller metro areas, such as Cleveland, values started to drop although they didn’t tend to drop as much. If you follow the lines for the U.S. and Cleveland, the average value of residential dropped substantially from year to year. If you take the data from Portland, both residential and commercial, you’ll see that they’re both going up. Isn’t it amazing that Portland was the shining beacon of the entire country by going up in value by 23 percent, while the rest of the U.S. declined by 26 percent?”

The group, in challenging the equalization rate, cannot act independently; the challenge would need to be under the auspices of the Town of Portland. According to New York State Department of Taxation and Finance law, only a municipality can contest an equalization rate under the administrative review process.

Portland resident and Chautauqua County District Attorney David Foley stressed the time constraints that the town would be under to get the grievance process through the door.

“The issue for the town, if you challenge this, is that you’ll be on a relatively tight timeline to file at this point, probably something like 30 to 45 days. And if it’s not filed timely and properly, you may lose out or get it dismissed. You may want to start looking for someone (legal counsel) who specializes in this.”

Town Attorney Charles Loveland added that the town had obtained an earlier quote for a specializing attorney which neared $10,000.

Foley put that figure into perspective by stating “My taxes went up $8,000.”

Town Supervisor Dan Schrantz told the audience, monies are available in the budget to obtain a specializing attorney, even if it were for a simple consultation to look into the challenge.

“I’ve heard from all over, if we challenge, our chances of winning are slim. But we have to try,” Schrantz said.

Rand responded.

“That may be difficult to do if someone didn’t pull up all of the information. But we have substantial data. We’re going to run into another issue too, very soon, with the two school systems potentially merging. Last year, because of the equalization rate change, the school district was supported by three separate towns. Other towns paid less. Now if you double the base of the people included in the new school system, someone’s going to end up the loser. I think we’re being penny wise and dollar foolish to not get this addressed.”

The town supervisor asked his council what their feelings were about moving forward with challenging the equalization rate.

Councilman Rick Manzella was answered with a room full of applause for his response.

“I’m in favor of pursuing it legally. Someone has to fight them; I guess we ought to start it.”

Councilman Al Valentin agreed.

“It looks like we do have a case here, and I’m in favor of moving forward. I would like to look at and better understand your data,” he replied to Rand and Portland resident Bill Ploetz.

After passing a resolution to move forward with challenging the equalization rate, the two residents agreed to schedule a sit-down meeting with the council to review their findings, which date back to October of last year when they began their own investigation into rate’s climactic fall.

The council will also be having a sit-down meeting in a special executive session following their next agenda item; a subject which garnered many more responses from the residents in attendance Wednesday; that of the upcoming term expiration of Town Assessor Deanna Wheeler.

The packed house of residents allege that Wheeler has been unprofessional and uncooperative in their dealings with her, and suggest that by working for a state agenda and not a town agenda, her actions led to the shift in equalization and would eventually and purposely lead to a potential complete revaluation of the town.

Schrantz, after hearing the concerns of the residents and thanking them for their efforts noted that Wheeler approached him and asked if she should attend Wednesday’s meeting.

“I feel that it’s the board’s responsibility to talk with her, and we’re here tonight to hear your opinion.”

The executive session is slated to follow a Tuesday special meeting on water rate increases which will begin at 3:30 p.m.