Nassau schools deny blame for tax rate hikes

An aerial view shows a neighborhood in Nassau An aerial view shows a neighborhood in Nassau County near Hempstead turnpike. Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin, 2011

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Nassau school officials, stunned by two years of tax rate hikes far above what they had told voters at budget time, are fighting back by blaming county assessment practices for the unexpected increases.

As homeowners receive their school tax bills, Joseph Dragone, Roslyn's assistant superintendent for business, has posted a chart on his district's website to explain how the rate increases occurred throughout Nassau.

The chart shows that most of the increase in tax rates are the result of lower tax bases in each district -- resulting mostly from successful assessment protests -- and a shift in tax burden from commercial properties to single-family homeowners in many districts.

"Sticker shock" -- the difference between the tax levy increase requested by the schools and the final tax rate calculated by the county -- "is the responsibility of the Nassau County Assessor," he writes.

Newsday reported last week that school tax rates were up an average 6.8 percent -- more than twice what most homeowners expected when they voted for their budgets this spring. Nassau districts had requested an average 2.9 percent increase in collections.

Over the past two years, Nassau homeowners have seen their school tax rates jump an average 19.1 percent, records show, despite a state cap that limits tax levy increases to around 3 percent.

Many Nassau school districts are posting Dragone's chart on their websites or sending it to residents. Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Lorna Lewis emailed a "Message to the Community Regarding Tax Rates" with the chart. Although the district requested a 2.89 percent increase in taxes, its tax rate jumped 8 percent.

"Nassau County is shifting an ever growing tax burden onto homeowners while claiming they are not raising taxes," Lewis wrote. "It's time for the county to stop blaming the schools and take responsibility for fixing the broken tax assessment system."

Acting Assessor James Davis said Wednesday, "Nassau County does not benefit from higher school taxes, only the school district does. None of the money collected by a school district goes to Nassau County government and only New York State government can rein in their large spending habits."

But Lewis said, "We're living up to our end of the bargain. When we put out our budget, we said we needed a 2.89 percent increase in the tax levy. That is exactly what we will get at the end of this . . . But what is happening, by the way the formulas are adjusting, it appears that we are getting more. It's absolutely not true. At the end of the day the dollars that we receive are exactly equivalent to the dollars that we claimed when we put our budget out."

School taxes are calculated by multiplying a property's assessment by the district's tax rate. If assessed values drop, tax rates increase to bring in the same amount of money. That means if one homeowner gets an assessment reduction, his neighbors taxes go up if their values remained the same.

Dragone's chart illustrates another reason that residential rates rise -- a change in overall tax burden within a school district. If the values of other "classes" of properties -- businesses, utilities and condominiums -- drop, homeowners pay more.

Dragone said that in Roslyn, homeowners are paying a larger share because of reduced commercial assessments. The district's overall tax base also dropped.

That means homeowners whose assessments stayed the same or increased "got hit with a double whammy. Their class of property got an increased burden but they also got an increased share of the increased burden," Dragone said.Assessor Davis last week said school spending was "out of control," but Lewis said yesterday that all Nassau's school districts "are under the tax cap, all of us. That's very important for our own credibilty. So that's why we're all fighting back."

 

SURPRISE

 

Nassau school districts with the largest percentage-point differences between tax levy increases approved by the district and tax rate changes due to county

assessment policies:

Great Neck: 6.47%

Lawrence: 6.44%

Lynbrook: 6.36%

Roslyn: 6.3%

Syosset: 6.29%

Source: Roslyn public schools

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