Assemb. Earlene Hooper backs Nassau tax refund overhaul

Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) filed a bill on Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) filed a bill on Nassau's behalf that would enable the county to implement a new system for paying commercial property tax refunds, which have long saddled the county with debt. Photo Credit: James Escher

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A proposal by Nassau County to overhaul its commercial property tax reimbursement system received the backing of a Long Island lawmaker Friday, clearing the way for a possible vote in the State Legislature just days before it adjourns.

Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead) filed a bill on Nassau's behalf Friday that would enable the county to implement a new system for paying commercial property tax refunds, which have long saddled the county with debt. The Senate Rules Committee introduced a similar bill May 30.

Republican Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said Friday the bills would allow the county to create an escrow account to hold tax payments when a commercial property owner files a tax grievance.

He contends the new system would "eliminate Nassau's 30-year reliance on borrowing to pay property tax refunds," which he said annually costs the county about $80 million.

The county is pushing for the State Legislature to vote on the bills before it adjourns June 19. An Assembly official said Friday Hooper's version of the bill still had some "technical changes" to be worked out with the Senate version.

Reached on her cellphone for comment, Hooper twice hung up on a Newsday reporter.

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The measure has the bipartisan support of the Nassau County Legislature. On Monday, the county legislature will vote on a "home-rule" message requesting state approval for the proposal.

Commercial tax attorneys say the plan could force businesses to pay more in taxes even if they protest. County officials say borrowing to pay commercial refunds is unfair to homeowners because all taxpayers have to pay the money back.

Nassau officials acknowledged the plan essentially calls for commercial property owners to finance their own tax refunds.

The new system would begin in January 2015, when the county sets its tentative assessment roll for 2016. Commercial property owners would be able to file tax protests through March 1, 2015.

If those protests can't be settled by April 1, 2016, when the roll becomes final, the assessor could grant assessment reductions of up to 10 percent while the challenge continues. That lowered assessment roll would be used by schools, towns and other taxing jurisdictions to set their tax rates. When assessed values drop, tax rates must increase to bring in the same amount of money.

School tax bills would go out in October 2016 based on the lowered assessment roll. County, town and general tax bills would go out in January 2017.

At that point, the county would bill commercial property owners for the difference in taxes calculated by using the old disputed assessment multiplied by the new tax rates. That money would be put in escrow.

If the property owner wins an assessment reduction, the escrow fund would be tapped to pay his refund. If he loses, the money he paid into the fund would go to the taxing districts.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the year Nassau officials hope tax protests should be settled.

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