Top officials of Nassau school districts are raising concerns over a fast-moving proposal to overhaul the county's property tax grievance system, with many questioning the impact the plan would have on school budgets and tax rates.
Top on the list of concerns is whether the plan, which is before the State Legislature as it heads toward a scheduled adjournment Thursday, would result in districts receiving only a portion of the tax money owed them while commercial property owners dispute their tax assessments. Some school leaders also complained that they weren't consulted before the county unveiled the proposal last Friday.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano held a telephone briefing for school superintendents Wednesday, assuring them the plan would not reduce tax revenues directed to each district annually.
But Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, called it a "rather vague bill with varying interpretations from the various legislators we've contacted."
"We're all still a little foggy on what this all means," Deller said. "We're reading the bill, and hoping that the county's assurances that we will not be impacted are true."
Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence), who helped the Mangano administration craft the new tax plan, said districts will receive 100 percent of the taxes they are requesting from commercial property owners. To "compensate" for the money being held in escrow, all commercial properties will see a tax rate increase, Kopel said.
"All it means is the tax rate would bump up to compensate," he said.Mangano and Republican and Democratic leaders in the county legislature want state lawmakers to allow Nassau to finance commercial property tax reimbursements by requiring those grieving their assessments to place up to 10 percent of their assessed property value in an escrow account.
If the property owner wins, the county would return their escrow contribution and their assessed valuation would be reduced for future tax rolls. If the property owner loses, the escrow money would be distributed to school districts and municipalities.
Grievance cases can drag on for months, and county officials say the obligation to contribute to the escrow fund will give property owners an incentive to resolve their claims more quickly.
Mangano contends the new tax plan would end the county's practice of borrowing about $80 million annually to pay for commercial property tax reimbursements. "Right now every taxpayer pays back the debt; with this system every residential taxpayer benefits," Mangano said.
Roslyn Assistant Superintendent for Business Joseph Dragone questioned whether the revenue that districts receive from the escrow fund would result in the state lowering the district's tax cap. The state sets the cap based on a number of factors including each district's revenue.
Mangano said escrow account payments would help school districts lower their tax levies.
"It would only provide them with more cash," Mangano said Wednesday in an interview. "If you needed $1,000 from taxpayers, and you received $100 from the [escrow account], you only have to ask taxpayers for $900."
School taxes make up about 68 percent of a property owner's tax bill, according to the county.
Jericho Superintendent Hank Grishman said he had initial reservations about whether districts would receive all the money owed to them. Grishman said Mangano's briefing alleviated his concerns "to some extent."
Mangano said he had spent the past two two days lobbying for the proposal in Albany, and that he felt "very optimistic" about its prospects.