Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Another Argument for Reapportionment

Sam Pratt recently published his Hudson Assessments: Part V, which analyzes assessment figures ward by ward from 1999 to 2010. His numbers confirm what I have suspected for a while: individual property owners in the First Ward are paying a great deal to keep the City afloat, but, because of the weighted vote in the Common Council, they--along with the residents of the Fourth Ward--have the least say in how the government actually works.

In the tentative rolls for 2010, the average per parcel assessment for residential properties in the First Ward is $213,641. Compare that with the Fifth Ward, where the average assessment for residential properties is $140,100. We can extrapolate that the average Fifth Ward resident is paying about two-thirds the amount of property tax as the average First Ward resident, but the two aldermen who represent the Fifth Ward wield three times the clout that representatives of the First Ward do because of the weighted vote. For a simple majority, which requires 1,011 affirmative votes, the vote of each First Ward alderman represents only 94 votes while the vote of each Fifth Ward alderman represents 278 votes. If the Fifth Ward aldermen vote together, as they typically do, they're more than halfway there.

Beloved as our historic ward divisions are, it's time to redraw the election districts in Hudson, as has been proposed by the Hudson Democratic Committee, to give them all equal population and do away with the weighted vote. A good start would be to divide the Third and Fifth wards, which already have two districts, into separate electoral divisions, giving the City seven wards instead of five. Then the ward boundaries need to be adjusted so that the population of all the wards is the same. Once this is done, each ward should have one representative instead of two, reducing the size of the Common Council from ten aldermen with disparate numbers of votes to seven aldermen each with one vote. It's an idea whose time has come.


  1. I saw Sam Pratt's analysis, and disagree with his and your conclusions. The fact of the matter is that houses in the 1st and 3rd wards are worth a lot more than houses in the 5th Ward, and yet for many years the houses in the 5th Ward were assessed at or close to their market value and houses in the 1st and 3rd Wards have been assessed a about half their market value. With this reval, as imperfect as it is, it goes a long way to addressing a historic inequity.
    I am total agreement however with redistricting the City and doing away with weighted votes.

  2. Tom:

    I've presented specific data from the City and County's own records; can you show us some contrary data to back up your broad assertions?

    As noted very specifically in my series—I'd encourage critics to read the whole thing, not just skim it—the question is not whose houses are worth more or less. Obviously, some properties are more valuable than others, and some are gaining value faster than others, and I said so explicitly in the piece.

    Rather, issues are (A) how fast values are changing relative to each other and (B) whether those relative rates are fair. The data suggest that they are often arbitrary at best, deliberately punitive at worst.

    By what giant leap of logic could one justify the idea (for example) that some properties in the 1st Ward could rise two, three, four, even five times in value in a single year, while other houses in the 5th could decrease in value over the same period?

    Even if one believes the former properties were underassessed in 2009, and the latter overassessed, a factor of five is not plausible, especially in a down market.

    If the assessor were arguing that 1st Ward values had increased *somewhat* more than 5th Ward values, few would have a problem with that. But if he argues that they are increasing exponentially faster, that is unsupportable and reckless.

    Moreover, the canard which Mr. Slocum (and now you, as a member of the BAR) have spread about 5th Ward houses "carrying" the City for years is both erroneous historically and irrelevant to the present day.

    As the charts I presented on my blog show, average values a decade ago in the 5th Ward were only marginally higher than those in other wards — approximately $10-$20K on average. At the time, that difference could be justified due to the poor condition of many downtown properties.

    But today, the average discrepancy is more than $100,000 — tilted against the property owners of the 1st Ward who saved and restored homes. Their properties are surely worth more; but again, the issue is not increased value, but disproportionate increases. As already stated in my detailed analysis, this new discrepancy vastly overcompensates for any perceived historical imbalance.

    Moreover, the purpose of today’s assessments is not to correct some perceived injustice from 10 or 20 years ago. Even if it were proved that some assessors got it wrong in the 1990s (and that hasn't been proved at all), that does not justify a current Assessor trying to make it up to them today.

    Assessments have to be accurate and equitable in the present day. But what you assert suggests instead that the Assessor should engage in making some kind of reparations for a previous generation’s mistakes—rather than actually assessing properties based on their actual present-day value.

    It is troubling that a member of the Board of Assessment Review could so casually gloss over these hard facts. Moreover, isn’t is somewhat unwise for a BAR member to be making judgements on these matters prior to actually hearing people’s grievances? If someone does not get satisfaction from the BAR tonight, would they not be justified in believing that you’ve prejudged their cases?

  3. So many issues in one blog post!

    It is noteworthy that there is agreement on reapportionment, surely "an idea whose time has come." The momentum has officially begun.


  4. This why they call property taxes "regressive": they penalize people for doing good (i.e. fixing up their properties), not to mention what they do to people who do absolutely nothing (the fixed incomers who have done years of good and get set upon by the assessor just because someone down the block spends a lot of money for big fat wreck). No, the property tax system is a terrible thing and should be abolished or significantly changed.

  5. Sam,
    Property taxes are an inherently unfair and probably destructive way to raise revenue, but the State of New York has it as just about the only way for municipalities to pay for roads, schools, etc.
    The last good reval of Hudson was done in 1991, as far as I know, and at that point, houses in the 1st Ward were worth about the same as those in the 2nd, 4th and 5th Wards; all of Hudson was pretty much a slum or not desirable to New Yorkers who would pay top dollar. Obviously that has changed a lot, but what did not change were the assessments, unless Ms. Singleterry picked out specific blocks or properties to bring up closer to market value; when she did Warren St., was when the whole assessment issue became a real problem.
    You make the elementary mistake of confusing what the Assessor states as "market value", with the real value of a property, which in Hudson was usually quite different, particularly in the 1st Ward. A simple example would be my old house at 11 Union, I bought it for $70,000., and Sarah just sold it for $325,000., last year in a bad market. I did a lot of work, but I did not do a gut rehab. The rise in the house's value is not proportionate to the amount of money I put into the house, it reflects the much greater desirability of the area and type of house it is. Houses in the 5th Ward never appreciated as much as those South of Warren, that is an irrefutable fact.
    The Assessor, whom I am no friend of, is attempting to bring the roll into accordance with New York State Law. He did a far from perfect job, I am not saying the roll is perfect, but he did it far more even handedly than Ms. Singleterry ever did.
    I disagree with some of what the Assessor did, but not in the need to bring the roll into accordance with New York State Law.
    It does however bring up a major problem with property taxes; it does punish people who renovate and make their houses more desirable and valuable. But it happens to be the law of the land, and if you don't like, try to change it.