Sandy-slammed LIers try to lower property tax assessments

Damaged by superstorm Sandy, at least four of Damaged by superstorm Sandy, at least four of the five houses on Bayview Place, a cul-de-sac off Clocks Boulevard in Massapequa, have been so badly damaged that they are no longer habitable. (Nov. 9, 2012) Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

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More than four months after superstorm Sandy lashed their homes, hundreds of South Shore residents are seeking to lower the assessments that will help determine their future property taxes.

In Long Beach, tax assessment grievances have spiked from 214 last year to 1,044.

Nearby, the village of Island Park's number has climbed so far from 25 to 97. Amityville's appeals doubled.

The numbers confirm fears among some local officials that grievances would spike because of Sandy -- more than 2,500 homes along the South Shore in Nassau and Suffolk counties were substantially damaged. That would cost governments vital tax revenue -- and force them to choose between raising taxes and cutting services.

"We're definitely concerned about it," Island Park Mayor James Ruzicka said. "We're a small village, so really cutting any services we can't look at, because there's not much to cut."

Other officials and experts aren't certain they see a trend yet and say it's too early to tell. Most Long Islanders have until May to grieve assessments.

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"This is one of those things that is still very much in the fuzzy stage," Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman said.

Local officials say a slew of successful grievances would force them to increase tax rates, shifting more of the tax burden to homeowners who were less affected by Sandy.

"We're all financially challenged, and this isn't helping matters," said Amityville Mayor Peter Imbert. Grievances there increased from about a dozen to more than 20, he added.

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The grievance process -- an annual ritual on Long Island -- allows residents to dispute, and often lower, their homes' assessed value, which is used to set tax bills.

The bulk of assessment challenges will happen this spring. Suffolk's deadline is May 21, and Nassau's -- which was extended two months to accommodate Sandy victims -- is May 1. Nassau conducts its own assessments; in Suffolk, they're done by the towns.

But some cities and villages do their own, and some of those grievance periods have ended. Developments in Long Beach and Island Park, which has another period in April, could presage a busy season.

"There will be an uptick in different areas like Long Beach and waterfront properties," said Sean Acosta, of Jericho-based Property Tax Reduction Consultants.

Lindenhurst, whose grievance period is in November, has not received any Sandy-related appeals, village clerk-treasurer Shawn Cullinane said.

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"Next year do I foresee people coming in and grieving? Absolutely, there's no question about it," village Mayor Thomas Brennan said.

Long Beach -- which was in a fiscal crisis before Sandy hit -- will look for state and federal assistance if its fivefold increase in grievances leads to a loss of tax revenue, Schnirman said.

Reduced revenue probably would not affect governments until next year, as grievances often end up in courts, delaying the outcome. But Schnirman said the city is already "anticipating any eventuality, including loss of revenue."

But officials in the villages of Lawrence, Massapequa Park and West Hampton Dunes, all of which had grievance periods last month, said they received about the usual number of filings, with virtually none related to Sandy.

Islip Town assessor Ronald F. Devine Jr. said he expects to see grievances filed by residents from hard-hit areas such as West Islip, Oakdale, Sayville and the Fire Island community of Atlantique, but "not as many as people would think."

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Market value, another factor in property assessments, is still in flux and likely to remain so because few homes have gone on the market since October, he said.

Fred Perry, a Dix Hills attorney who specializes in filing assessment grievances, lamented that Sandy has not boosted business. "Very few people are communicating this, that they even have damage," he said.

That might be because Nassau is encouraging residents to file claims for reduced assessments by April 1 directly with its assessment department. County officials would not discuss the number of filings received.

The State Senate is weighing a bill, already passed in the Assembly, that would allow towns to grant valuation reductions for properties that had losses of 50 percent or more -- even if homeowners made repairs before their properties could be assessed.

Municipalities concerned about possible lost tax revenue don't have to adopt the measure, said state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), a sponsor of the bill along with Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst).

Ester Bivona, Huntington Town's tax receiver, said officials and residents would be wise to brace for higher taxes if Sandy sparks a wave of grievances this spring.

"You have to balance the rate to maintain the equation," Bivona said. "It's simple math."

With Nicholas Spangler, Denise M. Bonilla and Celeste Hadrick

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