by Edward Shanahan
Leslie Fraidstern has become something of a regular scold at the public comment sessions of the twice-a-month City Council meeting, delivering his three-minutes civics lessons in rapid-fire order.
His remarks are pointed; and his target focused. Fraidstern has raised some essential questions about the underlying fairness of the city's system of property valuations for the purpose of assessing taxes.
Fraidstern, a retired New York City social worker who moved here in 1997 with his wife and resides on Calvin Terrace, has raised so many fundamental questions about property assessments that the City Council has called in state officials to present a virtual seminar on assessing at a special session on March 1.
Asked recently to address Fraidstern's critique of Northampton assessing practices, Mayor Clare Higgins said simply: "I don't want to respond to him in the press, so far it's a been a monologue. I'll agree with Mr. Fraidstern that the system has to be fair."
Fraidstern first entered the assessing fray in the fall of 1999 when the City Council was considering and rejecting as it does on an annual basis adopting a two-tiered tax rate - one for homeowners and a different one for owners of commercial and industrial property or CIP.
In a recent interview, Fraidstern said it was his feeling originally that "income producing property should have a higher rate than non-income producing property,'' but the council continued to support a factor of one - or same-rate for all property owners.
The council's deliberations also came against a backdrop of a perception in the business community that City Hall was and had been for some time anti-business in various public policies.
It was Fraidstern's view that the city, at least in its assessing practices was "very business friendly."
Last fall, the assessment debate came around again and this time Fraidstern, armed with some research, appeared before the council to offer his own analysis.
He noted that from 1989 until last year, homeowners were paying just about 75 percent of all property taxes, while CIP contributed 25 percent. Going back earlier to 1981 residential assessments were as low as 71 percent and CIP as high as 28.8 percent.
But oddly for fiscal year 2001, or the current fiscal year, the residential assessments now total 77 percent and CIP assessments have slipped to 22.7 percent.
The assessors argued that the value of Northampton homes has spiked in the last year as the city appears more desirable to newcomers in the housing market.
"I understand that," said Fraidstern, but "hasn't the value of businesses gone up a little?"
At the end of the debate, the council voted unanimously to continue with the single tax rate, "but at least they had a real discussion. I felt some appreciation for the Council getting information that it had not gotten before."
In his earlier analysis, Fraidstern also implied some of Northampton's new growth in property valuation had been more than offset by devaluation of existing or older commercial properties, thus resulting in a possible loss of tax revenue.
He had since modified that position and is not claiming that because of its assessing practices the city is actually missing out on revenue it might otherwise capture.
Instead, he continues to hammer away at the matter of fairness and to point to "anomalies" or deviations between the increasing valuations of residential property and the flat or declining values of business or income-producing property in the city.
At random, he recently examined the valuations of 15 city businesses or CIPs between 1998 and 2001. He found that eight remained the same, one went up by a modest $40,000, and six went down in value, or by a total of 21 percent of what they were worth in 1998.
"My jaw dropped," he said.
I took a trip down to the assessors' office not long ago to look at some valuations, also picked at random, to see if some pattern emerged between fiscal year 1996 and fiscal year 2001. During that five-year period, the value of the Hotel Northampton went up 5.3 percent; the Autumn Inn declined 1.7 percent; the large commercial block on the corner of Pleasant Street and Lower Main Street increased .05 percent; Thornes Marketplace increased a tiny .08 percent; the Florence Savings Bank headquarters increased 5 percent; and the Daily Hampshire Gazette increased 16 percent, although it should be noted that the Gazette' s valuation ($2,894,900) was higher in the years 1989,1990,1991, and 1992 than in the current fiscal year ($2,778,000).
By contrast and as a benchmark for those CIP values, I found that between 1996 and 2001, the assessment of my residence went up by 33 percent.
"What we have is a significant segment of the community being assessed as it was 10 years ago," he said of his research at the assessors' office.
"I don't know the reason, and I'm trying not to make a judgment, but the numbers are disturbing,"" Fraidstern says. "It shouldn't take a citizen to bring this to the attention of the Council."
The approach to valuing residential property is pretty straight-forward, he said, based as it is on recent real estate sales and an overall tracking of the housing market.
The assessing process used on the business side, he said, is "more subjective," one which employs voluntary surveys, income information that is not audited, and a process where not every owner is required to respond.
Fraidstern said the the goal of the assessors office and the council should be to make sure that everyone's property is assessed for its "full and fair cash value, the goal is not to defend the (assessing) formula; that flies in the face of common sense."
Does he still favor a two-tiered or differential rate?
"I phrase it differently now " he replied. "Those who support a factor of one have a special burden to make sure that every member of the community is paying full and fair cash value."
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