Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said Tuesday he is "110 percent" behind turning over the job of assessing residential and commercial properties to the county's towns and cities.
In an interview, Mangano said he intended to gather town and city representatives and others to discuss whether such a move was possible and whether it would work.
"I'm 110 percent supportive of assessment going to them and would like to get everyone involved in a conversation about it," Mangano said.
"We would have to see where everybody is; we would have to work on a plan," said Mangano, who has criticized Nassau's assessment system as broken.
Mangano's comments marked the first time a county executive has said publicly that he would consider moving Nassau toward a system already in place in the rest of New York State.
Nassau is the only county that handles assessment for its towns and cities. In 1948, the county's administrative code was amended so that Nassau would keep any surplus taxes and pay out any refunds.
More than a decade ago, with Nassau's bond rating at almost junk level, Frank Zarb, a special adviser to then-Gov. George Pataki, identified tens of millions of dollars in borrowing for property tax refunds as a major cause of county budget deficits.
That was early in Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi's first term. With a state control board overseeing Nassau's finances, borrowing for refunds slowed significantly -- but later increased again.
In an effort to slow it down again, Mangano last year began an aggressive program to settle residential property appeals early rather than have them accumulate interest over time.
But that effort left property owners who appealed and won with lower taxes than neighbors who did not grieve their taxes -- which also became an issue in last week's election, when Mangano beat Suozzi in a rematch by 18 points.
It's a cycle of unfairness that must be broken. And moving assessment duties to municipalities -- which could more easily and at this point, more accurately, determine property values -- would help.
But Mangano's quest for a meeting with local officials, while a start, would hardly fast-track the move, which would require municipalities to sign on before Nassau could seek state approval.
It's likely that nothing significant would happen until the State Court of Appeals hands down a decision on whether Nassau -- under a 2010 law backed by Mangano -- can push hundreds of millions of dollars in refund costs down to towns, cities and school districts.
Should the county lose its appeal, municipalities would have no pressing need to take on assessment because Nassau would keep paying for its own mistakes. Should Nassau win, municipalities likely would find it cheaper to do the job on their own.
In 2010, a spokesman for Hempstead Town called it unfair for towns to have to pay for the county's mistakes. In 2011, then-North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman, who now heads the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, Nassau's control board, said the town would be bankrupt if it had to pay its portion of tax refunds.
Tuesday, the only town that responded to a request for comment on Mangano's remarks was North Hempstead. "North Hempstead would certainly be open to any discussion that would potentially lead to fixing the county's broken tax assessment system," interim Supervisor John Riordan said.
There is precedent for towns assuming county functions. During Nassau's early years under a control board, towns took responsibility for some beaches, parks and roads so the county could save money.
But changing the assessment system will require Mangano to build a coalition for the move, communicate the costs to residents, find revenue to fund the transition and win state approval.
It's a big job.
But it could succeed in giving Nassau property owners what they've lacked for too long: an assessment system that's fair and one that works.
Nassau's assessment woes
Nassau County's countywide commercial and residential assessment system has been plagued with inaccuracies that, in turn, have fueled tens of thousands of successful assessment appeals resulting in property tax refunds.
Cost of refunds, plus interest: About $80 million a year
How refunds are paid: Primarily through borrowing
Backlog: Some $300 million in unpaid commercial and residential refunds