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Volume 3 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 85

Opinions of Counsel index

Conflict of interest (town assessor - fee appraiser) - General Municipal Law, Article 18; Real Property Tax Law, § 572:

A conflict of interest exists when a town assessor also serves as an appraiser under contract with the county for a county-wide revaluation program.

We have received an inquiry concerning a possible conflict of interest arising where a person who is sole assessor for three towns in two counties, a fee appraiser in one of the counties, and a principal in an appraisal company, is hired by one of the counties for a county-wide revaluation.

The assessor constitutes a public officer in the towns in which he serves in that capacity (Town Law, § 20(1)(a)). General Municipal Law, Article 18 contains the rules pertaining to conflicts of interest of municipal officers and employees. Section 801 provides, in part, as follows:

. . . no municipal officer or employee shall have an interest in any contract with the municipality of which he is an officer or employee, when such officer or employee, individually or as a member of a board, has the power or duty to (a) negotiate, prepare, authorize or approve the contract or authorize or approve payment thereunder (b) audit bills or claims under the contract, or (c) appoint an officer or employee who has any of the powers or duties set forth above . . .

Section 800(3) defines an “interest” as the following:

. . . a direct or indirect pecuniary or material benefit accruing to a municipal officer or employee as the result of a contract with the municipality which such officer or employee serves . . .

In the situation described, the assessor would derive a pecuniary or material benefit if he were to contract with the county for a reappraisal of property (including those towns for which he is assessor) and therefore has an “interest” in the contract with the county.

However, not all interests are prohibited by section 801. The prohibition applies if a person, as a municipal officer or employee, either individually or as a member of a board, has the power or duty to negotiate, prepare, authorize or approve the contract or payment thereunder, or appoint an officer or employee who has such powers or duties.

In the situation outlined above, the assessor does not have any of the powers or duties which would put him in a conflict of interest with respect to the proposed revaluation contract so as to render the contract void.

However, a situation such as this where the sole assessor of several towns will also act as the expert appraiser for the county’s reappraisal (including the towns where the appraiser is also the assessor) raises a question of incompatibility and, possibly, a question of ethics.

An assessor is required to assess real property in each of the towns in which he is an assessor, and prepare an annual assessment roll. Pursuant to section 572 of the Real Property Tax Law, a locality is permitted to employ experts to appraise the value of real property “for the assistance of the assessor in the assessment of real property”. The assessor evaluates the figures of the experts, makes his independent determinations and verifies that he has estimated the value of the property, as he is prescribed by law to do.

As a practical matter, an assessor cannot be an expert appraiser “for the assistance of the assessor” in the towns where he is the assessor. Further, he would be receiving compensation both in his capacity as an assessor and an appraiser to assess the same parcels of property. This would be ethically questionable.

Accordingly, the assessor should not be employed by the county as an expert appraiser in a revaluation program.

December 27, 1973