WHILE thousands of Nassau County homeowners scramble to pay eye-popping hikes in school taxes, thousands of others even in the same districts are seeing payments sharply reduced.
The disparities are wide-ranging. More than 21,500 homes saw tax increases of more than 10 percent, with 4,200 of those jumping more than 20 percent. At the opposite end of the spectrum, nearly 18,000 saw double-digit decreases, with 1,500 dropping more than 20 percent.
Nassau's tax disparities are a long-standing source of complaints, but veteran school officials say the range of tax increases and decreases this year is especially dramatic - in some districts, the widest ever.
"These are very much wider variations than we've seen in the past," said Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business in Roslyn. More than one house in every four had an increase or decrease of more than 10 percent, even though the district had no increase in its overall tax levy.
The main reason cited for this year being different from previous years is an average 15 percent plunge in assessed home values countywide, which has reduced taxes sharply for some, while forcing others to pick up the difference. The weakened housing market, experts say, is coupled with Nassau's complex tax-assessment system, which officials across the political spectrum have acknowledged is in critical need of repair.
In Jericho, School Superintendent Henry Grishman says his office checked taxes on about 40 properties within the district and found tax swings "all over the place." More than one house in every five saw increases or decreases greater than 10 percent. In most years, Grishman added, tax bills typically contain 3-to-5 percent increases.
Many big tax hikes or cuts
Figures provided by Nassau's Department of Assessment analyzed tax bills for 274,298 houses and condominiums. An additional 102,505 properties were excluded, due to special tax exemptions or construction changes. Of properties included, more than 40 percent experienced tax increases or decreases of more than 5 percent. That 5 percent range, tax experts say, is about what homeowners could expect under a perfectly predictable system with an average school tax levy increase of 3.38 percent, this year's figure across the county.
In Farmingdale, where one house in every nine saw increases or decreases greater than 10 percent, school superintendent John Lorentz says the unpredictability of Nassau's system puts both school officials and homeowners in uncomfortable positions.
This year's wide swings come against the backdrop of complaints from homeowners that the county's tax rolls are riddled with errors after it switched to a new computer system this year. In Nassau, assessments are legally challenged each year by tens of thousands of owners - the highest grievance numbers of any county in the state.
County authorities have acknowledged "challenges" in converting assessments to the new system - a move that caused some homeowners to question values set for their own residences. But officials say they do not know if these errors are playing into the wide swings. Last spring, Newsday reported that Nassau's assessment records had as many as 10,000 potential data mistakes in just the full- and half-bathroom category. Deputy County Executive Patrick Foye said at the time that the errors "must be fixed in order to provide fairness to our residential taxpayers."
Looking to level big swings
Late last month, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano fired his chief assessor and named a "transition" team to root out problems in the county's assessment system. Greg Hild, a former Smithtown assessor in charge of the team, says he wants to find out if the system's drastic swings can be leveled out.
"As of this moment, I don't have a definitive answer," said Hild, who was recently honored as state assessor of the year. "But I want to get my arms around this. . . . And I expect to get some answers shortly."
The county sets tax rates for school districts and towns, based on their budgets and on property assessments determined by the county. School taxes account for more than 60 percent of a homeowner's total bill. Nassau homeowners received 2010-11 school tax bills last month, with initial payments due last week. Tax bills go out next month in Suffolk, where tax swings within school districts are less pronounced, and where towns do their own assessments. Most of those assessments are not annual.
Hild said he does not expect to see great swings in Suffolk when the new bills come out. "I don't think you'll see it on the scale that was seen in Nassau County," he said. He said that only Southampton and Shelter Island do annual assessments. And from his experience in Smithtown, he said residents in that town, and in Suffolk in general, have fewer annual reassessments.
Among Nassau's baffled homeowners is Corey Hyatt, 47, of Wantagh, who saw school taxes on his Cape-style house climb 31.2 percent, to $10,972.91, despite the fact his house had no structural improvements over the past year and even as some neighborhood homes saw drops in tax bills. Finding the extra $2,600 will be a struggle, says the electrical engineer, especially because a daughter will enter college next year.
"I have a nice home, no question about it," added Hyatt. "But when taxes go down on other houses around me, how can mine possibly go up?"
Districts deny responsibility
School officials familiar with situations like Hyatt's, where differences in taxes on similar homes seem inexplicable, insist the fault is not theirs. Wantagh's school tax levy - that is, total revenue raised through property taxes - rose 3.97 percent this year.
In their explanation, Nassau officials cite a rise in the assessed value of Hyatt's house. In 2007 and 2008, those officials note, the homeowner legally challenged his assessments and won reductions. Then, when the county revalued his home most recently, under its system of annual reassessments, the value of Hyatt's residence rose, rather than falling like those of most houses within the local school district. And Hyatt's taxes jumped as a result.
Hyatt isn't buying the explanation. "It's not fair," he said.
Barry Blank of Oyster Bay doesn't think it's fair, either. The assessed value of his ranch-style home went down 4.4 percent, but his school tax bill rose 14.3 percent. And the tax levy rose only 3.36 percent.
"I don't know what's going on over there," he said of the Nassau Assessment Department. "This is crazy. It has to stop."
For this story, Newsday used numbers supplied by the Nassau County assessor's office at Newsday's request. Homes included are Class 1 properties - single-family homes and condominiums of three floors or fewer. About 102,000 homes countywide were not counted because they had renovations done or had exemptions other than basic STAR, both of which would have influenced assessed value. Homes in Amityville and Cold Spring Harbor were excluded because those school districts lie primarily in Suffolk County. Glen Cove also was excluded.