Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Grievance Day comes but once a year — the lone shot for home and business owners to challenge how much local officials say their properties are worth, and by extension, the size of their tax bills.
For Monroe County towns this year, that date was May 27. It was a deadline for dissatisfied homeowners to formally ask for their property assessments to be reduced and one of the busiest dates on the calendar for local assessors.
It also was a big day for an Irondequoit resident with a one-man business called "The Tax Opposer."
Chad M. Hummel offers to shepherd property owners through the grievance process if he agrees their assessments appear unfair. When clients win, he gets a percentage of their savings. If they lose, he said, he charges them nothing.
Hummel said he came up with the idea after successfully fighting to lower his own home assessment. He said he filed more than 200 complaints with area towns as of last week's cutoff. Business is growing, and by his count, he has handled about 700 challenges since he began in 2009.
The vast majority of Tax Opposer clients have owned property in Perinton, Penfield or Webster. Residents of those towns may be familiar with Hummel's mailings, which promote his success rate — some 95 percent of his clients have seen some relief, he said.
Hummel said he brings a motto to his work: "If you don't complain, then they don't care."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone in local government is enamored with Hummel's efforts.
In Webster, where Hummel filed 96 assessment complaints this year — nearly half of all challenges the town received — Supervisor Ron Nesbitt said he believes the Tax Opposer "is doing this for mass marketing, for money."
Hummel mainly relies on taking complaints to small claims court, the second step in the grievance process after a Board of Assessment Review hearing, Nesbitt said. Small claims hearing officers are more likely to offer most people at least some relief, he said.
That leaves everyone else in town to pick up a bit more of the tax burden to fund town and school operations, Nesbitt said.
“I think the system lends itself to passively over-assessing people.” Chad Hummel
"In the end, this hurts everybody," he said.
Hummel denied that small claims court hands out victories with ease and said if his clients receive reductions, it's just because their assessments are too high. Calling Nesbitt's view "bizarre," Hummel said he simply plays by the rules that government set up for homeowners to challenge assessments.
"It's their system, and we're jumping through their hoops," he said.
Hummel also said he turns away many potential clients if he thinks they are assessed correctly or even too low.
Property owners can and do go through the grievance process on their own, but Hummel said many of his customers have tried without success. The procedure is filled with "potholes and pitfalls," he said.
"I'm trying to bring some balance to the playing field," he said.
Assessors in Penfield and Perinton did not return calls for comment.
Hummel and Nesbitt don't see eye to eye in a number of other areas.
Nesbitt questioned whether Hummel was blurring ethical lines. Hummel is an attorney with a private law practice, but the Tax Opposer is not affiliated with his legal work. Nesbitt noted that some of the wins listed on the Tax Opposer website came in court, and he questioned when Hummel is serving in which role.
"Is he an attorney or is he a Tax Opposer?" Nesbitt asked. "Is he giving legal advice?"
Hummel said he tells all his clients that while he happens to be a lawyer, he is not providing them with law advice through the Tax Opposer business.
"I don't have any ethical problems," he said. "It's perfectly legal."
Nesbitt and Hummel also disagree on whether Webster needs a townwide revaluation, which has not happened in about 10 years. Nesbitt complained that a Tax Opposer marketing letter earlier this year was inaccurate and misrepresented his position on the subject.
Hummel said he was simply referring to a newspaper column that Nesbitt wrote on the topic.
Ultimately, Hummel said he does not believe local officials intentionally set property values too high, but that towns lack the manpower to make sure every assessment is correct. They also are primarily concerned with raising enough to fund their budgets, he said.
"I think the system lends itself to passively over-assessing people," Hummel said.
Nesbitt said he thinks people often challenge their assessments not because they think they are inaccurate, but because they simply want lower taxes. He pointed to everything from state tax policy to school taxes — not assessments — as the real problem.
"The problem here is taxes are too high, and people don't know any other way but to go after their assessment," Nesbitt said.