Scarsdale village budget box 2/12 issue

The coronavirus’ tendency to spread quickly among tightly packed groups of people has resulted in a mass exodus from New York City to the suburbs, including Scarsdale, as people seek more room to work from home, more peace and quiet, and more outdoor space.

According to assessor Victoria Sirota, this city-to-suburbia shift has brought an influx of new residents to Scarsdale and a 20% increase in new home sales in 2020, with house sales doubling between September and December.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic buyers from New York City seeking respite from crowded urban settings have been flocking to the suburbs in search of backyards, swimming pools, lakes and parks nearby, good schools and houses with adequate space and flexible layouts that allow for living, recreation and remote working and schooling for at least part of each week,” said deputy assessor Jane Lawrence. “Brokers report that any house that comes on the market with an in-ground pool flies off the shelf in record time.”

According to a survey released in September by the Manhattan Institute and the Siena College Research Institute, 44% of high-income New Yorkers said they had considered relocating outside the city in the past four months. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said it was at least somewhat likely that they wouldn’t be living in New York City within the next two years.

An increase in house sales also means an increase in the work performed by the assessor’s office, which is in charge of handling the inpouring of deeds, grievance requests and inventory verifications.

The assessor’s office experienced a 23% decline in grievances and a 29% decline in small claims assessment reviews (SCARs) in 2020. Sirota attributed the decrease to the pandemic, as homeowners were less likely to invite inspectors to come into their houses for an assessment review.

“As the market increases, the assessment residential ratio will probably decrease causing an increase in the number of assessment challenges going forward,” said Sirota.

The village’s assessed taxable value remained relatively stable in the past three years, sitting just below $8.9 billion. In 2020, taxable value increased a mere $252,315 to $8,968,328,380 for 5,948 parcels.

The pandemic also put a burden on the assessor’s office, which is statutorily mandated to meet specific state deadlines, such as filing the village’s assessment roll. The assessor’s office created a contactless grievance application process, allowing residents to email, mail or drop off grievance forms at village hall and sit remotely on Zoom for hearings.

Relying heavily on contractors to perform many of the basic duties of a village’s assessment office, Sirota is hiring a real property assessor to curtail the department’s contractual services.

The office’s 2021-22 $594,591 budget request shows a 13% decrease in contractual services, with the assumption that the property assessor position is filled.

Village manager Steve Pappalardo shared his concerns about the office’s overdependence on contractors to perform its basic functions, as a heavy reliance on contractual work could open the office up to issues down the line if a contractor wasn’t able to fulfill obligations.

Sirota, who started as the village’s assessor in March after a yearlong search to find a replacement, said she didn’t plan on completely eliminating consulting services, but that it was her goal to move the office progressively off of outside professionals and drive contractual expenses down.

“We eat, breathe and sleep the assessor’s office right now,” said Sirota. “With the hiring of this new staff person we will realize savings and benefits that cannot be seen in [this budget].”

The office is also in the early stages of digitizing and organizing documents. According to Sirota, because the pandemic dissuades residents from going to village hall to request documents, there has been an influx of FOIL requests, which her staff spends five hours a day fulfilling.

To streamline operations, the assessor’s office started a digitization project to scan all the exemption applications and reevaluation files so the process could be contactless.

Because of the increase in home sales due to the pandemic, Trustee Justin Arest asked Sirota when it would be appropriate to start talking about a property revaluation.

“We can certainly have those discussions,” said Sirota. “It’s certainly something that needs to be on everyone’s mind because … assessments and sales are getting so far away from one another and, in today’s climate, the only way we can change assessments is through reductions via grievances and by building permits.”

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