Property tax protests increased again this year in Nassau, led by homeowners challenging the county assessment of their properties.
County records show that grievances rose 3.6 percent from last year's 151,360 -- which was the highest number since the county's 2003 reassessment.
This year, Nassau property owners filed 156,848 protests by the March 7 deadline, including 136,338 for single-family homes. The total is more than a third of the 424,000 properties in Nassau. Homeowner filings accounted for all of the increase in protests, the records show.
Attorney Fred Perry, who represents hundreds of homeowners who protest their assessments, said he believes the number continues to rise because of County Executive Edward Mangano's change in policy toward granting early reductions to property owners who challenge as a way to reduce the county's cost of tax refunds.
Total refunds have averaged around $100 million a year for more than a decade. Under state law, the county must pay the school and town share of tax refunds.
"With the more fair policies occurring and more people getting reductions, the word spread it couldn't hurt to protest so more people are still protesting," Perry said. "But a large percentage of my clients are getting more limited reductions."
Still, he said 95 percent of his clients received assessment reductions this year.
Legis. David Denenberg, (D-Merrick) a longtime critic of Mangano's handling of the assessment system, said, "The story here is people understand that those who challenge are reduced and those who don't challenge pay for the reductions, so you have to challenge. Those who challenge go down, those who don't, pay for it. It's exactly what was forecast when Mangano proposed freezing assessments."
Deputy County Executive Edward Ward attributed the increase to superstorm Sandy, saying many victims' homes have yet to be repaired or rebuilt.
"People who have never filed before, filed," Ward said. He added that the system "allows all property owners to correct their assessment prior to paying their taxes," which has saved tens of millions of dollars in refunds.
School district tax rates have increased an average 19.1 percent over the past two years, despite a state cap that limits the total tax levy to around 3 percent. The increases are due primarily to a drop in school districts' assessed values. As a result, individual homeowners whose assessments remained the same paid higher taxes than expected.
Reductions in 87% of cases
Although Mangano froze assessments three years ago to prevent values from increasing unless improvements were made, he put no limit on reductions. Since then, 87 percent of homeowners who challenged their values in 2012 received reductions last year while about 85 percent who protested in 2011 received reductions in 2012
Commercial property challenges essentially have remained level at around 15,000 a year. Commercial property assessments are the most costly to correct, with 80 percent of the $100 million in refunds going to Nassau businesses. Commercial properties in Nassau pay taxes at a higher level of assessment than homeowners.
Donald Leistman, a commercial tax attorney who heads the tax challenge division of the Nassau Bar Association, said commercial properties in Nassau have been "sort of been kicked around. They as a group file every year because we have this system where they pay a lot more in taxes relative in value to single family homes."
He added, "The reason why commercial property owners file year after year is, one, commercial values are still not what they were five years ago. "Secondly, it's almost like an insurance policy. File a tax appeal to protect yourself from diminution of value due to tax rates increasing by large amounts.
"There is a good amount of softness in the market," Leistman said. "The office vacancy rate in Nassau is still 15 percent. In good times, it's under 10 percent."