farm1Tompkins County farmers have been hit with higher assessments this year, some of them significant.  Of course higher assessments mean higher taxes.  This is bad news not only for farmers, but also for people who hope the Lansing sewer project will succeed in a vote tentatively scheduled for September.  For one prominent Lansing dairy farm the new assessment will mean as much as $200,282 more taxable assessed property than last year.  With a projected school tax rate increase of 4.26% this summer the reassessment means farmers will be paying much more than they did last year.

"Farmers' perspective is they don't want to pay because they are land rich and cash poor," said Town Councilman Ed LaVigne at a sewer committee meeting Wednesday.  "If the price of milk plummets they borrow more."

Higher land assessments don't necessarily mean huge rises in total taxable assessments.  For some this was mitigated by the New York State Agricultural Ceiling Exemption.  But not for all.  Lansing farms ranged between $63,417 less taxable assessment than last year to over $200,000 more.  In a sampling of 15 Lansing farmers Tom Jones presented to the Sewer Committee only one farm has a lower assessment.

"(Tompkins County Director of Assessment Jay Franklin) spent three quarters of an hour on the phone with me and showed me where to look on the Web site," Jones siad.  "Then I double checked with the office to make sure I did it right."

His chart compares assessments of 15 farms in 2012 and 2013, including land-only, total assessments (including land not farmed and/or farm houses and other structures), the state exemption, and a comparison of the total value for last year and this year.

At the top end of the spectrum one Lansing dairy farm has been reassessed at $2,538,100, almost a million dollars more than last year's value.  $1,934,600 accounts for land valuation.  With an exemption of $1,081,738 the final taxable assessment figure is $1,456,362.  That is $200,282 (15%) more than last year.  This year's expected school tax rate is $20.69 if the budget passes May 21.  The difference will be an additional $4,138 for a total payment of $30,132.

The Agricultural Ceiling Exemption determines a base assessment value for agricultural land based on eight years of statistics on the capitalized value per acre.  A complicated formula is applied that considers how the soil is broken down by mineral content and woodland.  The exemption is only applied to active agricultural land, with the rest assessed at the fair market value.  According to the county assessment office the taxable value of agricultural land has risen steadily with a 95% increase in Tompkins County since 2004.

"The big thing is that for active agricultural land, New York State sets the taxable value for them," Franklin says.  "We could value the land at $1,000/acre of $1,000,000/acre and the end taxable value result would be the same due to the agland exemption."

Lansing Supervisor Kathy Miller questions the timing of the reassessment in light of farmers struggling to hold on to their farms.  She expressed concern that even a minimal sewer charge will be unacceptable to farmers in light of their higher property taxes.  She feared the timing could torpedo the project.

"Regardless of sewer, we're trying to help farmers," Miller said.  "They were having a hard time paying their taxes before they raised (these reassessments).  Why would you do this to them?"

Franklin says the assessment office is required to value all property at a uniform percentage of value each and every year.  The purpose of the reassessment is to bring agricultural land assessments to 100% of fair market value.  Franklin says the timing had to do with increasing sales of farm land and vacant land since they were last evaluated in 2008.

"We started to notice this in 2010 but that was when the discussion was shifted to gas speculation," he explains.  "We did not want to increase assessments due to gas speculation so we held out to ensure that the data that we were using (i.e. sales) reflected what land was going for and not necessarily how speculation would drive the land prices upwards.  Once we were convinced that gas speculation did not have an effect on these land values, we set about doing the revaluation."

Most of the farms in Jones's sample won't see rises that high, and one even saw a reduction of $63,417  in taxable assessment that will save the property owner $1,312 in school taxes.  The difference varies from farm to farm, but the bottom line is that most farmers will pay more.

The Department of Assessment met with farmers who wanted to question their assessment between March 8th and April 5th.  Land owners had a chance to get the facts on why the Assessment Office came up with the new assessment.  The Tentative Assessment Roll for 2013 was released May 1.  Formal complaints may be filed for review through May 28th.