Nassau needs to fix tax assessment system

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano (March 19, 2012) Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano (March 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

When did Nassau County property owners become solely responsible for the accuracy of their assessments? Isn't that supposed to be the county's responsibility?

Not in Nassau, where Wednesday officials boasted about how a program to settle assessments and change the tax rolls before bills go out has reduced the county's liability on assessment appeals.

No one said boo -- much less boasted -- about the accuracy of Nassau's tax roll, however. On the contrary, County Executive Edward Mangano, as he has since his days on the legislature, lambasted the system as broken.

He's right about that. More than a decade ago, a judge ordered a change in the way Nassau handled assessments. The county, as part of a consent decree, was supposed to make the system fairer by -- duh! -- making it accurate.

The problem before the change?

Property owners in poorer, majority black communities shouldered assessments disproportionally higher than they should have been -- picking up the slack for property owners in middle-class communities whose assessments were artificially lower.

But then came issues with the new system, officials agree, including software Nassau contracted to use. Later came a referendum under former County Executive Thomas Suozzi to make the assessor position appointed, rather than elected -- which has served only to further obscure what exactly is going on.

The problem now?

Nassau's in a fiscal crisis and Mangano needed to find a way to stem the millions of dollars in debt the county has accumulated by borrowing to repay the cost of successful assessment challenges.

He says he's done that, with the program to settle disputes first, send out bills later. But the system's so muddled that the program puts the burden on property owners to grieve, rather than on Nassau to make the system right.

As a result, property owners who don't appeal likely will see taxes increase to offset reductions in neighbors' assessments.

A recent report in Newsday showed that poorer and mostly black and Hispanic communities appear to be heading right back to where they were before the court-ordered reform. They are carrying a disproportionate assessment burden because property owners don't grieve their assessment.

But because the system remains broken, the increased burden is also spreading out to other property owners as well.

Wednesday, officials said that they'd settled some 110,000 residential property assessment challenges -- some 20 to 30 percent of which received no change at all.

Sounds like a lot, yes?

No.

That number accounts for only a third of residential property owners in Nassau -- the minority of those who appealed. Most residents -- two-thirds, according to officials -- did NOT appeal.

What's the fix? The answer for now, Mangano said, is for every residential property owner to appeal -- a defensive move I proposed a few years ago in this column.

But a defensive move to counter a broken system ought to be temporary, not county policy. The only winners here are lawyers who get a piece of the action for representing residents in residential and (let's not even talk about the mess in) commercial property appeals.

The best way out is a good system, which Mangano said he wants, too. Nassau, even in the current crisis, needs to get there. Sooner rather than later.

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