August 16, 2006

Making a Wrong Right

Southampton Town's decision to reevaluate the assessed value of about 500 homes in Sag Harbor is the right thing to do, and allow us, if you will, a well-deserved pat on the back.

Stacey Pennebaker ran into Indy Editor Rick Murphy over a month ago in the supermarket. The pair had grown up together in Sag Harbor and spent time in many of the homes that were over assessed. She had done the math and found the problem, but her pleas fell on deaf ears — almost 10,000 Southampton Town residents were complaining about their assessed values as well.

But what happened in Sag Harbor was a screw-up of monumental proportions — modest-sized homes, many well over 200-years-old on tiny plots, had been assigned values of $2 million and more. Many of the homeowners have modest incomes; there is also a large base of retired and elderly in the neighborhood, and the resulting tax bills would literally have been too much for them to handle. Some faced the specter of having to sell their lifelong homes.

Pennebaker's analysis and conclusion was the vanity purchase of a completely renovated and refurbished captain's house on one of the largest lots in the village had skewed the mathematical formula used to determine the value of other properties in the village. The button was pushed and the new numbers were put in place without anyone bothering to go look at the properties firsthand. Murphy, with the new assessed values in hand, took a tour of the village. The numbers were insanely out of line. The photographs told the story — there was no way these houses were worth anything close to the values assigned them.

Murphy called Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney. The house the editor grew up in, at the foot of Howard Street, had been assessed at $2.2 million, probably 300 percent too high. That house, purchased by Murphy's grandfather almost 100 years ago, was featured on The Independent's front cover in our July 19th issue, giving a stunning visual reference to the problem: it clearly isn't worth over $2 million. Murphy told Heaney that there was something terribly wrong, and Heaney told the town's Business Manager Richard Blowes and the then Town Assessor Brenda Noa. None of the three were aware of the vast discrepancy between the actual value of the properties and the value the town had assigned.

Pennebaker subsequently met with Blowes and spoke to Noa and Heaney. By the time Sag Harbor residents complained to the town and to the village, Southampton Town officials had begun working on a solution. The new town assessor, Ed Deyermond, not coincidentally, is the same person who held the position when the town did its first full value assessment some 17 years ago. As Mayor of Sag Harbor, Deyermond was well aware of the problem that existed.

It's important the town is working to fix the problem before the next tax bills go out. It's also uncertain if the new valuations that come in will prove accurate. Unfortunately, it also means, because the houses in Sag Harbor have been so over valued, that as they come down, the taxes owed by other residents in the town will go up.

As we have said in this space before, real-value assessment, despite all the headaches and complaints that come with it, is the only fair way to tax property owners. Any municipality that hasn't done it has far more inequities than Southampton Town does now. Usually, in a vacation area like ours, that means the wealthy aren't paying their fair share.

East Hampton, are you listening?

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