Homeowners get help to reduce what they consider unfair property tax through new website, social media platforms and chance to join class action lawsuit

Upstate New York homeowners are among the highest taxed in the nation, and Tom Golisano is out to change that.

On Tuesday, the Paychex Inc. founder unveiled his “Tax My Property Fairly” campaign. The project gives property owners information and tools to determine whether they are taxed fairly, and if not, obtain a fair tax or a rebate. The campaign also urges input from property owners and the chance to join a class action lawsuit.

“We want to get the system fixed,” said Golisano, a western New York native who moved his primary residence in 2009 to Florida. He owns property in Mendon and on Canandaigua Lake in South Bristol.

Golisano said he expects to spend about “six figures” on the campaign with its online resources, marketing, and class action lawsuit on behalf of upstate taxpayers who sold their homes for less than assessed value — to try to help them recover some of the tax overpayment.

“I have resources I can utilize. The average person can’t do that,” Golisano said.

Property owners in upstate who have sold their homes over the past five years for less than assessed value may express their interest in joining the lawsuit by completing a brief form on TaxMyPropertyFairly.com. Golisano said he wants people to understand why their property taxes are among the highest in the nation relative to property value, how the assessment process is inconsistent and inequitable, and how they can challenge their assessments if they feel their properties are not fairly assessed.

If his campaign is successful, Golisano said there may be less incentive for people to leave the state.

"It is not fair for some homeowners to be paying more in property taxes than the market value of their homes and for others to pay less. The system is not fair if people need to hire lawyers and consultants to navigate a complex process to challenge their assessments,” he said, adding his campaign aims to help efforts to reduce taxes and improve the system and “make it more equitable."

To see how properties in upstate were assessed relative to the sale price, Golisano studied a sample of real estate sales from June 2017 in six upstate counties: Broome, Erie, Monroe, Onondaga, Albany and Rensselaer counties. He reported “highly inconsistent results, both within and between counties.” He found properties overassessed compared to sales price, ranging from 22 percent overassessed in Erie County to 51 percent overassessed in Broome County.

In Monroe County, 29 percent of the properties were overassessed compared to sale price.

At the press conference at his foundation office in Perinton, he asked an Ontario County property owner to share her experience. Donna Graham said she has made three successful challenges to her assessment on property in Gorham. She said it did not cost her anything. She used information found on the county website and, working through her town assessor, received a reduced assessment. Graham said it was prompted by seeing her assessment rise 40 percent over eight years.

Golisano talked about flaws in the system such as a multitude of different classification codes and inconsistent training and lack of oversight or audit of assessors. He took issue with condos that are assessed differently than residential properties. He said “some condo owners pay a fraction of what a single homeowner would pay for property that is valued the same because of how the law requires assessments be calculated.” He said the property tax system “penalizes property owners who maintain and improve properties through higher assessment, and rewards those who do not with lower assessments.”

After becoming a Florida resident in 2009, Golisano said he saved about $14,000 a day on state income taxes. At his upstate New York properties, he successfully challenged assessments on two homes and says he pays property and school taxes in New York exceeding $212,000 annually.

What about the geese?

At his Canandaigua Lake property in South Bristol, Golisano is withholding about $90,000 in school tax that was due in September over a geese problem. He wouldn’t answer questions about that during the press conference but afterward said his issue there is the geese, not the property assessment — though he said previously he would seek a lower assessment if officials didn’t take action. The geese pollute the property and lakefront by taking up residence during the warmer months making the property unusable. He said the town or other government entities should take responsibility and eliminate the problem. Officials say the geese are protected and few options exist. Golisano said Tuesday he thinks they could go after the geese eggs.

Why did he withhold school tax over this? Because the school tax is due in September, right during the height of geese trouble. If geese were a problem in January, he would have withheld town and county tax, he said.

What will he do next? “I have no plan. I haven’t figured it out yet,” he said.