Brown: Higher property taxes after Sandy unfair

Village of Lindenhurst workers use heavy machinery to

Village of Lindenhurst workers use heavy machinery to remove debris left over from superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 10, 2012) (Credit: Ed Betz)

Some residents in communities significantly damaged by superstorm Sandy likely will get a surprise come September.

It will come in the form of higher property tax bills -- mostly for schools -- in the wake of neighbors getting lower assessments for damaged properties.

According to a Newsday story last week, hundreds of South Shore residents already are seeking lower assessments for damaged properties.


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That number is likely to grow significantly as different deadlines for seeking assessment adjustments in Nassau County and Suffolk's towns and other municipalities draw closer.

A proposed State Senate bill that would make it easier for some Sandy victims to get lower property tax assessments on damaged buildings is a step in the right direction.

But it's a half step because New York State has yet to identify a stream of revenue to help counties, towns, villages and, again, mostly schools make up the difference.

Without that revenue -- or other steps, such as short-term borrowing -- tax rates will rise for residents whose homes were left undamaged. The problem will be especially acute in several small South Shore school districts, where tax rates would rise for some residents to fill gaps caused by lowered tax assessments for others.

"Never have so many houses lost their value so quickly," said Lawrence Levy, dean of Hofstra University's Center for Suburban Studies. "In the short term, it is going to be a problem."

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that in New York -- unlike, say, Louisiana with Hurricane Katrina -- property taxes are the major revenue source for schools and (in addition to sales taxes) many municipalities.

Nassau and Suffolk, like other municipalities hit by Sandy, have a chance of recouping some of their expenses through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But John Brooks, a former Seaford school board member, said the state should begin devising a way now to help school districts so that bills don't mushroom for owners of undamaged properties.

"The bill pending in the State Senate is part of the equation, but it alone isn't going to get the job done," said Brooks, who has written a proposal to help districts that he hopes will find backing among Long Island's state representatives.

According to Levy, school districts and municipalities also could borrow. "This is a time when using what might be called gimmicks in less extreme times is perfectly acceptable in the short term," he said.

In Albany, meanwhile, one measure already has passed the Assembly to allow towns to grant valuation reductions for properties with losses of 50 percent or more -- even if homeowners did repairs before the properties could be assessed.

Municipalities concerned about possible lost tax revenue from the reductions don't have to adopt the measure, State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), a sponsor of the bill along with Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), told Newsday.

But that would not be fair to residents whose storm-damaged properties are not worth what they were before Sandy. If their assessments are eligible for reductions, those assessments should be reduced.

But, as Brooks and Levy pointed out, there has to be some short-term mechanism in place to help schools and municipalities make up the difference.

There will come a time, as owners make repairs, when most of the damaged properties likely will regain much, or possibly even all, of their value. When that happens, the problems caused by what is likely to be a sweeping reduction in assessments will go away.

Until then, schools and municipalities should be able to look to Albany, if borrowing or other moves fail, to help fill the gap.