WATERTOWN — Towns in Jefferson County have had trouble finding enough people to sit on the boards that handle some of their most important government functions in recent years.
County Real Property Director Roxanne M. Burns, who oversees property taxes for the entire county, said she’s been hearing complaints from town supervisors across the county for years about how difficult it is getting to find members to fill their boards of assessment review, specifically.
These boards are three- or five-member bodies, tasked with hearing complaints from property owners about their property value assessments, which set how much they will pay in property taxes. These boards are empowered to adjust assessments, making them one of the primary bodies for taxation in each town.
“I hear all the time, town supervisors or assessors say, ‘We hope we can make quorum, this year it’s getting more difficult,’” she said.
This year, the problem Mrs. Burns always worried would pop up finally did — the town of Rutland wasn’t able to form its own Board of Assessment Review.
Rutland Town Supervisor Gary D. Eddy said it’s been an ongoing problem for him and the town leadership to find enough residents interested in joining three of the town’s boards: assessment review, planning or zoning.
“We’ve been lucky to be able to function and maintain quorums on the other boards,” Mr. Eddy said. “They may have a vacancy or not, but we’ve been able to continue and move forward. But as people fall off the boards for whatever reason, it’s getting harder to fill those positions.”
Mr. Eddy said the town of Rutland has started actively soliciting for new members for all its boards, and is creating a website where people can find all the information on all the town boards, and a way to apply for appointment to them.
“We’re basically canvassing to fill some of these vacancies,” he said.
He said it seems to stem from a general lack of interest in local government. As people interested in joining the boards move out, retire or leave the board for some other reason, fewer and fewer new faces have been popping up to fill in the gaps.
The county has stepped in to offer a solution to Rutland’s most pressing problem — its lack of an assessment review board. Jefferson County will be forming its own Board of Assessment Review, staffed with five county residents. The county board will be able to provide assessment review services to any town in the county that passes a resolution asking them to, but this year only the town of Rutland requires its services.
“The reason it’s somewhat easier for me to form a county board is because, with a town board all the members have to be from that town, so you’ve got a smaller geographic area to choose from, whereas with the county board, they can be from anywhere in the county,” Mrs. Burns said.
Mrs. Burns said she’s found five people willing to serve on the board, including one who is a resident of Rutland. She’s waiting for the final legislative pieces, including a permissive referendum in Rutland on whether the county board should step in, before announcing the members’ names.
Members of the county board will be paid by the town of Rutland. Mr. Eddy said the town paid its board members about $100 per day of work, and that will continue when the county board steps in.
The board will only last for a year, through what’s known as Grievance Day, where the boards of assessment review hear complaints, and will only be re-established if a town can’t form its own board again in the future.
“We will revisit this next year,” Mrs. Burns said. “If they are able to come up with taxpayers in their township, they can at that point create their town board, which would be great. If they can’t, they will use the county board again if need be.”
Grievance Day is held at the end of May, usually on the last Tuesday of the month. Rutland’s Grievance Day will be held on the last Thursday of May due to town laws.
Mr. Eddy said he would like to put assessment review back into the control of the town next year if enough people offer to join the town’s Board of Assessment Review, but the county alternative provides a much-needed safety net when not enough people volunteer.
He said bringing in people from outside the town could also make assessment reviews a much calmer, less contentious process.
“It takes the personalities out of the township,” he said. “In some cases, I’ve seen neighbors become enemies because one of them sits on the board of assessment review and the other one feels their house is over-assessed.”
There’s one other alternative to forming a county board, but it’s relatively unpopular with Jefferson County’s leadership. If a town isn’t able to fully staff a Board of Assessment Review, and the county hasn’t established one of its own, New York state real property law requires that the county’s administrator, chairman of the legislature, real property director and treasurer all fill in the gaps on the town board.
“I never want to have to make that phone call to those people telling them they’ll have to do this, that night on the fourth Tuesday in May,” Mrs. Burns told the county Board of Legislators in March when she informed them she was forming a county board of assessment review.