Painstaking reporting by Michelle Breidenbach and Tim Knauss shows just how unfair Syracuse’s property tax assessments have become.
The city isn’t keeping up with rising property values in wealthier neighborhoods and falling property values in poorer neighborhoods. The result is that high-end homeowners are paying less than their fair share of property taxes – a burden that gets shifted to everyone else, and falls particularly hard on the people least able to afford it.
Who let this happen? How can it be fixed?
First, don’t be distracted by the “property taxes are too high for everyone” argument. Yes, property taxes are too high. This is about fairness. Taxes don’t go up or down because of assessments. Assessments simply determine how the tax burden is shared.
New York state law requires that all properties are “uniformly” assessed based on current value — but state government does nothing to enforce it. Other Upstate communities are even worse off than Syracuse. New York is one of only five states that does not require municipalities to update property assessments on a fixed schedule. Without that requirement, cities and towns have little incentive to undertake such a project. Dangling some state funding to do the job might help.
Property owners can challenge unfair property assessments, and not just on Grievance Day. It does take some research and persistence. If your bank pays the property taxes out of a mortgage escrow account, you may never even look at the tax bill. That inattention could be costing you hundreds of dollars in extra property taxes every year.
Ultimately, it’s up to Mayor Ben Walsh and the Common Council to fix this broken system. The remedy is expensive – about $2 million for a full revaluation of 40,000-plus properties. It’s unpopular. It’s risky. But it’s the right thing to do to restore a fair and equitable property tax. After all, that is a key function of local government.
Elected leaders (and the civil servants who report to them) should not tolerate such blatant inequities. But they do because fixing them would cost a lot of money and anger taxpayers.
Knauss and Breidenbach provide telling examples of unfair property assessments in Syracuse. Case in point: identical tax bills of $1,977 for a house in Eastwood that sold for $120,000 and a house in the Valley that sold for $42,000. Both houses are assessed at $50,000 – a value too high for one home and too low for the other.
Plot 2,300 of the worst inequities on a map, and you instantly see that unfair assessments disproportionately punish homeowners in the city’s poorer neighborhoods on the North and South sides, and reward homeowners in wealthier neighborhoods, Eastwood and the University area.
Such disparities have led the city’s assessment staff to tinker around the edges of a broken system – changing 1,500 to 2,000 assessments each year, reassessing a street here or a block there after recent sales reveal a higher-than-average discrepancy between assessed value and market value. Using technology to keep up with recent home sales and target the staff doing reassessments is just more tinkering.
he city also has an informal policy to not jack up a homeowner’s assessment all at once, to avoid “sticker shock.” There is no basis in the law for phasing in assessment increases. Cushioning the blow for high-end homeowners isn’t fair to lower-income homeowners who also struggle to pay their taxes.
The sticker shock comes from allowing assessments to slip so far out of whack. Syracuse has not done a citywide property revaluation since 1996. It’s well past time it did another one. The longer Syracuse waits, the deeper the inequities become and the harder it is to correct them.
New York’s hands-off approach to local taxation gives municipalities a lot of latitude – and with that comes great responsibility to get assessments right.
The status quo is intolerable. The mayor and the council can no longer ignore it.