When we read references to important municipal practices becoming ``more centralized and uniform'' with the help of millions of dollars from the state, we tend to hold up a caution sign.

Thanks to such state money, $50,000 per county, Otsego, Delaware and Schoharie counties are conducting studies regarding assessments. And there are some good reasons to do so.

For generations, property values in most rural towns and villages were set by elected assessors. For good or ill, a property owner knew who was assessing his property because the assessor probably lived on the next road over the hill.

On the other hand, because assessors knew the local residents, some didn't spend a lot of time going around making sure valuations were up to date _ and thereby raising tax bills for their neighbors.

However, problems developed because of a state law mandating that properties be assessed at full market value, which was sort of like the gold standard for property valuations. But so many municipalities fell behind on market value, the state had to step in and assign them percentages that represented just how far they were short. Those percentages are known as equalization rates.

Many municipalities were all over the place with their rates, and it made fair taxation difficult for counties and school districts because they are composed of multiple towns.

In response, the state required more training for local assessors, and many towns were left with no candidates to seek the job on Election Day. Some towns have switched to a system where they appoint rather than elect assessors, but even then it's often hard to fill vacancies.

New York is one of only three states without statewide uniform assessment standards.

So, the state is dishing out money so counties can look into ways of sharing assessing responsibilities with towns by implementing county-wide databases for tax collection and enforcement.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with fairer taxation, and keeping property values at full market value is a good way to do that.

Steve Child, director of Otsego County's Real Property and Tax Services Office, said if property values were determined by a central office, with input from local assessors, the differences in equalization rates among municipalities would disappear and assessments could be kept at full value.

That would save municipalities the periodic but considerable expense of hiring professionals to conduct revaluations, Child and his counterpart in Delaware County, Michael Sabanski, agreed.

Child added, however, that he was not promoting the idea of countywide assessing.

For now, we're glad of that. We think it's better to have local people doing local assessing, and having the county professionals available to help would be good.

We hope the state doesn't decide any time soon to mandate the centralization that would take the local component out of property values.

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