Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has worked as a reporter, an editor, newsroom administrator and editorial writer. Show More

It’s not the liability.

It’s the perception of a lie.

That’s the reality Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano now has to confront.

From 2012 through 2015, Mangano or a representative of his administration told Nassau residents that the county’s liability from successful residential property tax appeals was zero.

Except that it wasn’t.

What makes it worse is that while the Mangano administration was spinning gold for Nassau residents, the county Comptroller’s office and Assessment Review Commission had numbers telling a far different tale.

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Yes, a “Residential Tax Grievance Negotiation and Settlement Program” put into place by Mangano in 2011 reduced the county’s liability on successful residential claims. But the program didn’t eliminate Nassau’s liability for residential claims.

Far from it, in fact. According to Nassau’s Assessment Review Commission — whose members, by the way, are appointed by Mangano — the county in 2014 added an estimated $10.2 million in residential liability and, in 2015, there was another $10.7 million.

The increases were on top of $28.4 million in projected tax refunds already owed to owners of one, two- and three-family houses and condominiums in buildings of three stories or less.

In 2012, Mangano said that Nassau had settled all residential protests from 2011; his 2013 budget said that Nassau’s new settlement program had produced “ZERO residential debt liability.” And in 2015, a spokesman said “every residential challenge” was corrected before the tax roll became final.

How could that be?

In an interview Wednesday, Mangano said he made the earlier statements based on information he had received from county assessment officials. Mangano, who knows the assessment system well, said he had not realized that Nassau’s class of residential properties includes condominiums located in buildings three stories or less.

“If I could, I would go back to make it clearer,” he said. “I would have talked about one, two and three-family houses.

Mangano said he’s asked assessment review officials to produce a report on the status of residential liability claims.

Why do such claims matter?

The cost of successful property tax grievances has been dragging Nassau’s budget down and pushing borrowing up — and it’s been doing so, under Republican and Democratic leadership, for decades.

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By the end of last year, Nassau owed $39.1 million in estimated residential property tax refunds. It will pay that bill down, per an agreement with its financial control board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, through borrowing. The borrowing will become smaller each year, until 2018, when the payments are supposed to come from Nassau’s operating budget.

Still, years of borrowing, plus interest, will be covered by county property owners. And even when the cost shifts to Nassau’s operating budget, that’s money that could have gone toward roads, public safety and other services — in a county that for a decade and a half has been struggling to make ends meet.

Nassau’s burden is unlike that of any other county in New York State. The county “guaranty” makes the county responsible for refunds owed to school districts, villages and other taxing entities. But Albany has refused to mitigate the burden, or remove it, because of opposition from school districts and the other taxing entities that would be left bearing some of the cost.

Mangano, through a series of measures, has gone to extreme lengths to reduce Nassau’s property tax refund liability. Yet residential (and an even larger commercial) liability remains.

It’s growing — at a slower rate under Mangano’s tax settlement program, which has reduced some cost to the county.

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But it’s still growing.