Facing town residents after Facebook furor, Bethlehem Sole Assessor Laurie Lambertsen apologized for initial confusion and detailed procedures for a town wide initiative to verify residential property data
BETHLEHEM — Before Town Assessor Laurie Lambertsen explained the process by which Bethlehem will “re-collect” data on all residential property before the Town Board on Wednesday, April 12, Town Supervisor John Clarkson also took the opportunity to clarify a couple of points.
Widespread confusion — most notably among board members — regarding the amount of access town appraisers would expect to have to private homes caused a social media backlash following the board’s approval of the project on March 22. In response to public pushback, Lambertsen met with the appraisal company that has been contracted to conduct the data collection and returned on Wednesday evening with a clearer explanation of what residents can expect, what will be affected and why it is necessary now.
“If we didn’t get the description perfectly last time,” he said, “apologies, but certainly we’re going to do our very best tonight.” He also pointed out that all information is available on the town website.
“It is not a reassessment,” he continued. “We want to have the best possible data. Why? Because, we apportion not just the town taxes, but the school taxes, the fire district taxes, the county taxes.” In total, he said it amounts to approximately $125 million annually and that to fairly apportion requires accurate and up-to-date property information.
“It’s no fun to estimate values on which taxes are apportioned,” he said. “But if we do it wrong, in any degrees, as people have pointed out, that means some are paying too much and some are paying too little.” The last reassessment, in 2014, he said, “. . . wasn’t easy, it wasn’t a piece of cake to do, but it ended in a much fairer tax system because we got good values.”
As a result of the 2014 reassessment, Clarkson said that the town found commercial properties tended to be undervalued while homeowners were often paying too much. “We found, overall, that the homeowners’ tax burden was reduced more than $3 million annually. About three-quarters of homeowners saw lower tax bills.”
Lambertsen, who met with GAR following the public response to the re-collection procedure as it was initially explained, returned last night and turned to face town residents before apologizing for any confusion. Explaining that the contract with GAR permitted interior appraisals in some situations with the owner’s permission or if requested by the owner, she said that the primary goal will be to gather sufficient data from outside the home — also with the awareness and permission of the property owner. She also said assertions —abounding on social media — that appraisers would be taking photographs inside the homes was inaccurate and had never been suggested by herself or anyone that she was aware of.
“The reason we’re doing this now,” she said, “is because we got a grant.” The grant allowed the town to purchase new technology that will modernize the Town Assessor’s records, many of the sketches are still in their original paper and pencil format and data tends to be smudged. The new technology, she said, will not only be easier to read and more durable, it also takes much of the guesswork out of data collection because the program it uses is able to calculate square footage.
Lambertsen identified types of homes that were the most likely to be approached by appraisers asking to enter to confirm certain data. Split-level homes, raised ranches, and contemporary style houses, she said, can be difficult to assess from outside. Homes with cathedral ceilings, she said, can be problematic and result in the home being assessed as having more square footage than it actually does.
The full re-collection process is available on the town website, as well as below. Also attached is a memo from Lambertsen to the Town Board providing additional background on the residential data collection project, which will be completed, by region, over four years, beginning in North Bethlehem in 2017, followed by Old Delmar, Glenmont and South Bethlehem/Ravena/Coeymans/Selkirk in 2020.