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Oct 07, 2019

Syracuse’s unfair property taxes: Mayor Ben Walsh says he’s on it

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Mayor Ben Walsh said he is committed to improving the accuracy of Syracuse property assessments, which a recent report by Syracuse.com showed are often outdated and unfair.

Walsh said he started looking for ways to improve assessments as soon as he took office in January 2018. He launched a data project this year to increase the city’s efficiency at appraising properties.

And by the time Walsh proposes his next city budget in early 2020, he plans to announce more comprehensive measures to ensure the accuracy of the property assessments that determine how much tax each owner pays.

Walsh said he takes “very seriously’’ the need to improve assessment equity.

“Not that we’ve come anywhere close to fixing it, but we’ve acknowledged that it’s a problem since Day One,’’ Walsh said. “Despite the fact that it is not a politically popular topic, or one that’s easy to understand, that hasn’t discouraged us from tackling it.’’

Syracuse.com analysis of three years’ worth of home sales and assessments showed that the most expensive homes in Syracuse often sell for more than they are assessed for. That means wealthier property owners pay too little tax, on average. The least expensive houses, on the other hand, typically are assessed for more than they sell for.

City officials are weighing a variety of options to fix that, including a reassessment of all 42,000 properties in Syracuse – something that was last done in 1996.

A citywide revaluation would cost an estimated $2 million and might require extra expense each year to keep the appraisals current, said Frank Caliva, chief administrative officer.

Walsh said his administration is also researching new technology that could make the appraisal process less costly. The city might invest in new technology in tandem with a citywide revaluation, or instead of one, he said.

Syracuse officials want to take advantage of any innovations that can cut the cost of appraisals, which currently require a visit to each house, Walsh said.

“We feel like, with technology continually advancing, there has to be a better way to do it that isn’t as resource intensive,’’ Walsh said.

Some communities, for example, are using cameras on municipal vehicles to gather images of properties for assessments, along with information about road conditions, sidewalks and other infrastructure, Walsh said.

Walsh said he plans to decide on a comprehensive approach to improving assessments by early 2020, so that any funding needs can be incorporated into the 2020-2021 budget.

Whatever course Walsh ultimately chooses, Syracuse will look to partner with other municipalities to share costs, Caliva said.

In the meantime, Syracuse assessors and data analysts are collaborating with Johns Hopkins University to develop a new data model that can help assessors target properties for reappraisal.

City assessors usually appraise about 2,000 properties a year, but many of those assessments don’t change, Walsh said. The data model is intended to steer assessors more efficiently to properties that need new assessments, he said. It’s scheduled to be implemented by next spring.

As city officials adopt new procedures or technology, Walsh plans to keep the public informed, he said. The recent article by Syracuse.com“jump-started that process,’’ he said.

Published by Syracuse.com, Sept. 25, 2019

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