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Golisano still walks the talk on fighting property assessments

Tom Golisano, the founder of Paychex Inc., exits Pittsford Town Hall on May 23, 2023, after appealing to the assessor for a reduced assessment on a house he owns on West Bloomfield Road.
David Andreatta
Tom Golisano, the founder of Paychex Inc., exits Pittsford Town Hall on May 23, 2023, after appealing to the assessor for a reduced assessment on a house he owns on West Bloomfield Road.

Thousands of taxpayers in New York made their case for a lower property assessment on Tuesday, a day known as “Grievance Day” in suburban towns across the state.

One of the aggrieved was billionaire businessman Tom Golisano.

He made two trips to Pittsford Town Hall, first to appeal directly to the town assessor for relief and then — after he got no satisfaction there — to make his argument before a five-member volunteer assessment review board.

Golisano, 81, who splits his time between New York and Florida, is no stranger to the process.

Five years ago, he famously tried to leverage a flock of geese with a relentless case of the runs into a lower assessment and, thus, a lower tax bill.

He argued then that the town of South Bristol had a responsibility to either shoo the waterfowl that had made the yard of his vacation home on Canandaigua Lake their preferred rest stop, or lower his assessment.

Golisano lost that battle, but it was only his latest skirmish in a war with assessments in New York that dates back decades — until Tuesday.

“Geese don’t have anything to do with this one,” he told the Pittsford assessor.

At issue was the construction of a cell phone tower on a parcel of land next to a house Golisano owns on West Bloomfield Road, where his son, who has developmental disabilities, has lived for nearly 25 years.

Cell towers have been a contentious issue in Pittsford. Residents gripe about poor cell phone service, but at the same time have mounted high-profile civic battles to block cell towers from going up.

A few years ago, residents protested a plan for Verizon to build a tower at the United Church of Pittsford on South Main Street. They lost, but Verizon compromised by making the cell tower look like a bell tower that blended in with the church.

Verizon is also erecting the new tower near Golisano’s house.

The company had approached the Pittsford school district and the Monroe County Water Authority about building on their land nearby. But, according to town officials, the school district declined, and the water authority demanded too much for the lease.

So, the company struck a deal with Golisano’s neighbor.

Now, the tower is going up 65 feet from Golisano’s property line and about 200 feet from the house, according to site plans on file with the town. When complete, the tower will top out at about 100 feet.

Golisano’s house is worth $498,200 and it has an assessed value — the amount on which taxes are calculated — of $358,700, according to the town tax roll. Last year, he paid a total of $14,405 in taxes.

All of those figures, Golisano argued, are too high now that the home will literally sit in the shadow of the tower. That Verizon has plans to camouflage the upper portion of the tower as a pine tree was of no comfort to Golisano.

He figured the house would now sell on the open market for $300,000, and requested that his assessment be reduced proportionately to $216,000. That would lower his tax bills to $8,669.

“How many people do you think that can afford a $500,000 house would voluntarily buy the house next to a cell tower that is only 65 feet from the property line?” he asked the assessor.

A 2014 survey by the National Institute for Science, Law and Public Policy concluded that 94% of homebuyers and renters are less interested in properties close to cell towers and more inclined to pay less for them.

Researchers at the Southern Georgia University studied the effect of cell towers on property values in Savannah, Georgia, in 2019, and found that homes near towers sold for about 8% less than comparable homes.

They also concluded, however, that the discounts associated with proximity to a tower were smaller during hot real estate markets.

To that point, the assessor, Stephen Robson, told Golisano of two homes in Pittsford that are close to cell phone towers and sold recently for more than their estimated market value.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t have an effect,” Robson said. “What I normally see is that it affects the people that are there before the tower goes in.”

As a compromise, Robson offered to lower Golisano’s assessment by $50,000. That would cut his tax bills to $12,389.

It was not enough for Golisano.

In 2010, he won a years-long court fight against the town of Mendon that cut the assessment on his primary residence from $6 million to $1.9 million, saving himself $140,000 in taxes annually. He later helped his daughter lower the assessment on her home in Victor, saving her $60,000 a year in taxes.

Long before that, Golisano ran for governor three times on a platform of lowering property taxes. Later, he took out full-page ads in newspapers explaining how to challenge an assessment and encouraging property owners to do so.

After the geese incident, he launched, an online resource for property owners to “fight for fair property taxes.” (He said he solved his geese problem by investing $14,000 in a contraption that shoots laser beams that scares waterfowl.)

Golisano declined the assessor’s offer and took his case to the assessment review board. The board’s decision is pending.

Outside Pittsford Town Hall, Golisano said he suspected he would have no choice but to sell the house.

He said if he sells it for less than the $498,200 estimated value on the town tax roll that he will sue the town for the difference.

“That,” he said, “is worth my time and my effort and my principle.”

David Andreatta is investigations editor. He joined the WXXI family in 2019 after 11 years with the Democrat and Chronicle, where he was a news columnist and investigative reporter known for covering a range of topics, from the deadly serious to the cheeky.