Niagara Falls Assessor Worked for Revaluation Contractor in Line to Do Reassessment

BY Tony Farina;

As Niagara Falls city officials try to address taxpayer concerns about a planned citywide property reassessment, the first in 14 years, we have learned that lawmakers may have a new problem on their hands that may not sit too well with already apprehensive city residents:  the appearance of a conflict of interest involving City Assessor James Bird and a potential reassessment contractor.

When 100 people or more showed up at council chambers last week (Sept. 6) to vent their concerns about the planned reassessment, they heard from Assessor Bird, state tax officials, and representatives from the contractor who did the last citywide reassessment, Gar Associates of Amherst, invited to the session by Bird.

What most people probably didn’t know is that Bird worked as a residential appraiser for Gar Associates for 15 years before signing on as Niagara Falls city assessor in May of 2011.   And even after taking over as city assessor, Bird continued to do work for the appraisal firm as an independent contractor, including this year.

bird

Niagara Falls City Assessor James Bird works part time for GAR Associates LLC who may be called upon to do the city wide reassessment..

 

 

When I asked Bird about his relationship with the firm that so far appears to be the strongest candidate to do the Falls reassessment, he admitted his relationship.

“I am an independent contractor and I did work for Gar after leaving in 2011,” said Bird.  “It was often to cover vacations as a 1099 employee,” meaning he received a form 1099 which reports to the IRS how much he was paid.

I asked Bird if some people might regard his continued work with Gar, given their current involvement in the Niagara Falls reassessment process, as having the appearance of a conflict of interest.  He said if Gar gets the Niagara Falls contract, he would stop working for them immediately.   Bird is paid $64,000 a year to be the Niagara Falls city assessor.

 

andrew-touma1

Council Chairman Andrew Touma has taken the lead on the reassessment plan for the city.

When asked the same question about the appearance of a conflict of interest with Bird’s past and present work for Gar Associates, Council President Andy Touma said there is still a lot of work to do on the reassessment process, and that the relationship between Bird and Gar Associates would be something that would have to be discussed.

Touma said he didn’t know how many other city lawmakers know about Bird’s work with Gar Associates, adding that he was not sure himself about the relationship until I brought it to his attention.

Bird said he disclosed his work as an independent contractor, including for Gar Associates, in his in City Hall disclosure statement, but that doesn’t mean the information was common knowledge to city lawmakers, and certainly was not likely to be known outside City Hall among the property owners who are facing a reassessment that they fear will raise their taxes.

Bird, Touma, and state officials have attempted to reassure taxpayers–supported by many experts– that the goal of the reassessment is to level the playing field, especially when it comes to commercial properties, and Touma has said that the purpose of the reassessment is to ensure that all properties are assessed fairly at a uniform level, adding that no matter the results of the revaluation, the tax levy of $28.7 million would stay the same, and that property owners would have a grievance process to challenge any change in their assessment.

But while Touma and other supporters will continue trying to educate residents about the reassessment mission and the unlikely possibility of major up-or-down changes, they will now have to explain the relationship between the city assessor and the revaluation firm that appears to be the leading candidate to do the job, that is if the city can find somewhere between $800,000 and one million dollars to pay for it.

As of now, city officials appear to have taken their foot off the accelerator when it comes to the reassessment process, recognizing the political hazards of going against strong public opposition and the need to find the money to pay for it which could be further complicated by the now public history between Bird and the contractor he has brought to the table to help sell the reassessment, Gar Associates.  The challenge to move the process forward may have suddenly become even more difficult for lawmakers, especially for those who may not have known about the relationship between Bird and Gar Associates, and who will certainly have to deal with the appearance of a conflict going forward.

partners

GAR Associates LLC executive team: Ronald J. Rubino, MAI, President, Commercial Division, F. Cindy Baire, Vice President/Partner, M. Scott Allen, Vice President/Partner

 

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