PRESENT ASSESSMENT SYSTEM ABSOLUTE COLOSSAL FAILURE
The Larchmonter-Times, December 1922
So says William R. Bull to county government commission who are devising plan for new form of county government.
Giving concrete instances in support of his opinions, William R. Bull of Port Chester declared last Wednesday, at a meeting of the county government commission at the White Plains courthouse, that the existing methods of assessing real estate in Westchester County are an absolute, colossal failure.
Mr. Bull has been in the real estate business in Westchester for 35 years. Instances of palpably wrong assessed valuations as alleged by him follow:
"The fault in these cases," said Mr. Bull, "is in the antiquated system. Our assessors are honest well-intentioned men, but they have had no training in what, in Westchester, has become a profession. In a town I am familiar with we have a plumber passing on the values of real estate that in the aggregate, is worth $23 million. Not only have most of our assessors had no experience with real estate, but they are men known and active in our communities and subject to all of the pressure that is involved through associations with their neighbors in business social and church life. Fair and equitable valuations that are just to every owner of real estate cannot be obtained under these conditions. It absolutely cannot be done."
- A piece of waterfront property for which a lease has just been closed for a cash price of $100,000. It has been carried on the tax roll for years for $3500.
- A residence assessed for $26,500. It was on the market for four years, that was sold a few weeks ago for $18,000.
- A farm, assesed at $2,250, that was sold a few weeks ago for $18,000.
Mr. Bull advocated a county tax bureau with an elected head in charge. He declared that objection would be made because objection is made to everything knew, but that the wisdom and economy of centralization would make themselves felt in a very few years.
The commission discussed the reports as a committee of the whole. The effect of the majority report of the subcommittee, which was presented by Daniel P. Hayes, Chairman, with I. J Beaudrais concurring, would be to retain the existing system of town boards of assessors but with the following modifications:
The effect of the minority report submitted by W. F. Judson would be to supplant the existing machinery by provision for a county commissioner for the assessment and collection of taxes. He would have the assistance of deputies in number adequate to cover the entire county, the recommendation being made that the cities and villages be permitted to take advantage of the central system if this is constitutionally possible. Supplementary recommendations were for a county board of equalization to make adjustments between the towns and the cities and for a county board of review for all assessments.
- Provision for a single assessor, all appointed by the town board instead of being elected by the people,
- the assessor to be chosen with regard to special qualifications and be paid sufficiently well to attract a high type of official on a full-time basis, and with
- provision to be made for a county board of equalization and review of assessments which would sit in many parts of the county to hear complaints by taxpayers.
W. H. Knapp, of the State Tax Commission, said that excellent results would follow the centralization of the tax system in Westchester County as it has been centralized in New York City. He declared that the city of Buffalo, the property of which has an assessed valuation about the same as that of Westchester, has centralized its tax matters in one department and that a card system makes readily available essential data in regard to every piece of property and that city. Among other manifest advantages, this greatly simplifies the problem at the time of a sale of finding out whether there are back taxes outstanding.
Judge Knapp declared that while it would probably require a new constitutional amendment to do it, it would be well to consider bringing the cities of the county into the proposed centralized system, if so no other reason than to simplify the complicated problems of equalization. If all the county's area were being assessed on uniform standards by the same officers, each community share of the county and state tax would be a direct proportion of its assessed valuation without any of the complications now introduced by the varying scale of appraisal with we as each board of assessors a law onto itself in this regard.
Judge Knapp declared that the work of town assessors throughout the state consists largely of directing the copying of the role of the previous year. This does little harm, he said, in counties where transfers are a few, but in a thriving Progressive community the harmful effects are manifest.
"The State Tax Commission is anxious to have Westchester take the initiative in this matter of centralization of tax matters," said Judge Knapp. "After you have proven how beneficial such centralization is, we will try to get a constitutional amendment along similar lines to cover the entire State."
Corporations Killed Effort
Judge Knapp charged that the constitutional amendment of 1915 making this provision was killed through the efforts of corporations that endeavor to do business with 10,000 groups of officials rather than with a small number of bodies composed of men who know their business and proceed along scientific lines.
Judge Knapp declared that the process of the referendum on the constitutional amendment affecting Westchester's form of government made him confident that the people of the County are inclined to believe that a better government is possible. He declared disbelief that if the existing situation is described to the people so that they will become familiar with it, they will approve of the centralization of tax matters in a county authority.
Mr. Judson said that he did not believe in asking a compromise as an appeal to people who may oppose radical changes in the form of county government. He said that centralization of tax matters in a county authority was admittedly the ideal system and that anything less than the ideal, if presented to the voters, would be likely to be met with questions that would be hard to answer. He said that the difficulty of paying taxes to a central bureau was slight one because 90 percent of taxpayers pay by check.
Present Cost is $40,000
He declared that he had little success in obtaining information as to the cost under the present methods through questionnaires. He estimated using the 1920 report of audited bills by the Supervisors that the cost is at least $40,000 a year in the towns. He declared a belief that the cost would be less with county authority.
Mr. Beaudrais said in part: "The majority report recognizes the desire of the majority for local home rule, feels the spirit of the times in this regard, and believes that better results can be obtained by allowing the citizens of the locality in their representative town board to select the assessor under proper safeguards as to fitness. The courts have held that market value is the consensus of opinion in the locality of persons having knowledge and evidenced by sale between persons under no compulsion to sell, to persons under no compulsion to buy. Who would have better knowledge and better means of information than the real estate agent in the locality?"
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