Suozzi, Mangano trade blame over tax assessments

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Republican County Executive Edward Mangano and Democratic opponent

Republican County Executive Edward Mangano and Democratic opponent Thomas Suozzi visited street fairs, house parties and walkathons in Nassau County. (Sept. 28, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

Nassau County executive candidates Edward Mangano and Thomas Suozzi swatted at each other over the county's flawed assessment system Tuesday.

Again, they weren't in the same room at the same time -- how about a few real debates, please? -- but Mangano, the incumbent Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Suozzi, have both had a chance at tackling the system.

At a news conference, Suozzi, who is vying for his old job, was the aggressor: "People's property taxes are going up because Ed Mangano broke the assessment system worse than it's ever been before," he said.

A spokesman for Mangano came back quickly with assertions that the administration has saved money by giving residents opportunities to fix assessments before the cost of refunds became an even bigger drag on Nassau's budget.

Who is right? Depends on whether the question is about finances related to assessment. Or the fairness of the system itself.

Here's the deal on finances:

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Suozzi, as he's said during the campaign, at one point during eight years in office did begin to cut back on borrowing to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds for a system that, frankly, has been busted for years.

What Suozzi doesn't say, however, is that there also came a point when his administration -- against the advice of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state control board -- began ramping up borrowing levels again.

The cost of repaying successful property tax assessment appeals remains a prime reason why Nassau can't balance revenues and expenses.

The more Nassau spends on refunds -- and it has spent or borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars over decades -- the less it has for other expenses.

Mangano has made a dent in the debt by entering into mass settlements of property tax grievances. Yes, as Mangano has said, the policy mitigated Nassau's refund liability.

But did mass settlements further challenge the fairness of a system that both candidates agree is unfair?

In 2000, Nassau signed off on a consent decree to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit over assessments. Before the settlement, Nassau used 1938 rather than fair market values to determine assessments -- which determines how big a slice of the property tax pie owners are responsible for shouldering in school, town, county or other property taxes.

The problem back then was that neighborhoods with slower rising values, most of them African-American, ended up overassessed, while other neighborhoods ended up being underassessed.

In short, the system left mostly minority property owners paying more than their fair share in taxes, while other property owners paid less.

A variation on that disparity, however, is playing out now with property owners who grieve and win, gaining advantage over property owners who don't. And the impact -- as Nassau residents now receiving school bills higher than what they thought they'd approved in May budget votes -- doesn't stop there.

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Mass changes in assessment -- as county Comptroller George Maragos warned in a report last year -- also is leading to a drop in the county's total residential assessed value.

It's too early to analyze this year's bills, but a Newsday analysis last year showed that 84.7 percent of homeowners who filed challenges -- about 94,000 throughout Nassau -- won reductions.

And those reductions accounted for more than half of the drop in total residential values.

That left school districts -- which built budgets around a specific amount of property tax revenue -- with no choice other than to raise tax rates to pull in the same dollar amount.

Which is the prime reason Mangano and Suozzi ought to be addressing how -- or whether it is even possible, at this point -- to put the system right.

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