By CRAIG FREILICH
POTSDAM – Attendees at the Potsdam Town Council meeting Tuesday night seemed convinced that their rising assessments do not reflect the true real estate market in Potsdam.
That might be explained by the possibility that most of those at the meeting to protest the new property assessments have valuations that rose by more than the average 13 percent in the last five years, but their belief is in part contradicted by a local real estate agent.
Re-assessments are generally based on what comparable pieces of property have recently sold for, and that’s what Potsdam Assessor James Snyder says he has used to compile the first revaluation in the Town of Potsdam since 2008.
But homeowner Milner Grimsled said he believes the re-assessment of his property, from $96,000 to $120,000, bears “no relation to the reality of the market” for real estate in Potsdam.
People at the Tuesday meeting clearly represented a segment of property owners whose new assessments were above the average of a 13 percent increase.
People who spoke were complaining of assessment increases of 30 percent, 67 percent and more.
Kip Blanchard said he was “sure many people in this room would be willing to sell their houses for what they’re assessed for” if buyers were looking.
Builder and landlord Bob Ramsey said the $400,000 assessment increase in properties he and his business partner Matt Hafer hold “makes us wonder if we can stay. We’ve had two properties on the market for years without even an inquiry.” He said banks are telling him that the value of the property is actually diminishing.
Downtown businessman Bill Melchior, who owns the building at 71 Market St. where his office is, says his assessment went up from $165,000 to $270,000, while he has a large vacant space in the building that he has had up for lease for a year, and neighboring Market Street storefronts are empty.
“The higher the taxes go, the more a business has to go out and borrow to keep an investment afloat,” he said.
Real estate agent Nikki Coates, of Nikki Coates & Associates at 30 Main St., said she believes the 13 percent average increase in values is in line with what she has seen in the real estate market over the last five years, but she has been getting “lots of calls from people concerned that their assessments don’t necessarily match what they perceive their property is worth.
“Taxes are a huge issue, and if assessments go up, their assumption is that taxes will follow,” Coates said.
She said the letter informing people of their new assessments “explains that the tax rate determines what their taxes are,” and not the assessments alone, “but people see the higher number and assume there will be a higher rate, and it well may be, but it’s important for people to do due diligence. Go to the assessor’s office.” She said people should be sure to bring complete information about their property, and to get full information from the assessor.
“Look. Compare. See if the house is assessed fairly compared with other houses they might be familiar with. If people think they were unfairly assessed, they might try to get an appraisal,” Coates said.
But of the 13 percent average rise in the value of real property in the township over the last five years, “Overall, that’s probably accurate,” Coates said. “But in the North Country that’s not necessarily meaningful in terms of properties sold” because it’s a small market. “But overall, selling prices are up.”
Another phenomenon that could be a factor is what Coates calls “lifting houses” – those that are selling at above average prices that will lift the average selling price, and in turn assessments.
But Coates says that one of the fundamental tools an assessor uses, making comparisons among properties, might not be the best way to evaluate the actual value.
Experienced at evaluating what people will pay for a house and what a seller will accept, Coates said the assessor’s job can’t be easy.
“It’s hard to determine an accurate value without going through and looking at the features. There is room for more variation,” she said, so “when people get an assessment letter, they should do some research” to see if they think it’s fair.
“But you really can’t take one house as an individual unit and compare it with what look like similar houses,” Coates said.
Those who want to do some research on their own have been offered the services of the St. Lawrence County Real Property Tax Service.
Director Darren Colton says his office has a record of all property sales in his office, and that people might want to do some research before they go talk to the assessor about a change.
He also said that other municipalities that have done reassessments recently are the towns of DeKalb, Hopkinton and others, some of which have seen average hikes of 35 percent.
People who want to discuss their assessments or challenge them can make an appointment for an informal hearing with Assessor James Snyder April 15 to 19 and April 22 to 26 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Additional hearing hours have been added on Thursday evening, April 18, from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturday, April 27, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meetings are held at the Town Hall, 18 Elm St.
Once Snyder submits the Tentative Assessment Roll to Albany for review he will hold additional hours to be announced.
People can call 265-2810 to schedule an appointment.