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NEW YORK CITY-In a few weeks the city will issue its first new assessment roll since revamping assessment procedures after the Departments of Finance and Buildings were the subjects of criminal investigations. A joint task force formed by the two agencies in the wake of the bribery scandal developed new policies and procedures designed to eliminate corruption in the Real Property Assessment Unit. These recommendations were improving the quality of data used in the assessment process, agency operations, oversight and integrity controls and public awareness as well as making better use of technology.

At the time the recommendations were released in early 2003, Finance Department commissioner Martha E. Stark noted that the overhauling would “minimize the risk of corruption by taking the mystery out of the assessment process.”

“It shouldn’t be a mystery,” Joel R. Marcus, tax attorney for Pottish Freyberg Marcus & Velazquez LLP, agrees. “Assessment has been a high art–it’s complicated and sophisticated.” However, Marcus does issues some concerns. One is the fact that, due to the scandal, a number of senior-level assessors are no longer in the unit. “It creates a void in terms of understanding the process.” Other concerns include the lack of contact with individual assessors and the use of more objective criteria to judge properties citywide. “There’s nothing wrong with subjectivity–without subjectivity, you only get a mathematical answer.” He adds that by using objective criteria, the city runs the risk of over or undervaluing properties.

“The Real Estate Board of New York has the same objective as the city, an open and transparent process that results in a fair and understandable assessment roll,” says Steven Spinola, REBNY president. “We worked closely with the City on how to make that happen and we expect the reforms to go a long way towards that goal.”

In 2002, a joint investigation by the NYC Department of Investigation, the US Attorney fro the Southern District of New York and the FBI alleged that current and former assessors accepted more than $10 million in bribes over a 35-year period. While the total cost to the city could not be estimated, officials noted that it cost the city approximately $40 million annually since 1997/98 on as many as 500 properties.

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