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Why your school tax bill isn’t what you thought

By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY — September 14, 2010 — Ever wonder why your September school tax bill goes up or down farther than the percentage the district estimated at the budget vote in May?
And did you know that the increase or decrease may be quite different from the increase/decrease others in your school district pay – even those with similar homes and properties?
For example, Town of Bethel property owners in the Sullivan West school district are seeing a 6.53 percent decrease in this year’s tax bill compared to 2009’s.
Yet Town of Fremont property owners in SW are seeing a 7.28 percent increase – even though SW officials estimated a 2.7 percent increase in May.
According to SW’s semi-retired business administrator, Larry Lawrence, that’s partly due to around $400,000 in additional state aid that was not anticipated in May, lowering the average tax levy increase. (Similar state aid payments have had the same effect in other districts this year.)
Still, while that average tax levy hike now stands at 1.32 percent, nary a SW taxpayer will actually pay that exact increase – it will be either more or less, depending upon the township in which they live.
For one, STAR exemptions – and their respective increases/
decreases – play a role.
But there’s something called the equalization rate, which, as Bethel Assessor Marge Brown will tell you, is tough to understand.
“Even the assessors have difficulty,” she acknowledged.
According to both Lawrence and Brown, the simplest way to explain the equalization rate is to understand its relationship to the tax rate.
Plainly put, when one goes down, the other goes up.
The equalization rate, as detailed by the New York State Office of Real Property Tax Services, “seeks to measure the relationship of locally assessed values to an ever-changing real estate market.”
It’s arrived at by dividing the township’s total assessed value by what the state estimates is the township’s total market value.
So if the equalization rate stands at 100 within a given township, every property is assessed at 100 percent of its full market value (what you could theoretically get for the property if you sold it).
Only the Town of Lumberland is at that level in Sullivan County, however, as it’s expensive and time-consuming to do the frequent townwide re-assessments to keep it at that level – and it’s not state-mandated, added Brown.
“It’s a very political issue,” she noted.
So with varying equalization rates amongst townships, it’s no surprise that what one property owner pays is not necessarily what a similar property owner in a different town will pay within the same school district.
Why do the equalization rates vary?
Because the real estate market is constantly in flux, and the state adjusts the local rate to theoretically compensate for that. If full market values throughout the township drop, for example, the state readjusts the equalization rate upwards.
Figured into that equation too is how much of a particular township is located within a particular school district – i.e., a much smaller pool of taxpayers in the Town of Liberty fund Sullivan West than in the Town of Delaware, which wholly lies within SW’s territory.
These calculations – which do not involve local assessors or district officials – happen on an annual basis, said Lawrence, with rates finalized by August, just in time for schools to prepare their tax bills.
The goal is to ensure the equitable spread of property taxes throughout taxing jurisdictions that jump other taxing jurisdictions’ boundaries – aka school districts, which overlap multiple townships.
Is that goal always achieved? Brown’s not so sure.
“The state needs to mandate mandatory reassessments, say every three years, that removes the politics,” she remarked.
Interested in knowing more? The state offers detailed info and examples at

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