Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Nassau County Comptroller George...

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos in Mineola. (Oct. 3, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

As Nassau's school tax bills began going out Monday, county Comptroller George Maragos reported that new assessment practices may have shifted the tax burden to middle-class homeowners and those who did not challenge their assessments.

While the administration of County Executive Edward Mangano disagreed with some of Maragos' findings in a review of the assessment office, officials acknowledged that there would be some shift in county taxes onto middle-valued homes, between $333,000 and $440,000. But the administration noted that county levies make up the smallest portion of the total property tax bill -- less than 20 percent.

"No generalization" can be made about shifts in school taxes, which constitute the largest portion of the total tax bill, the county said.

Nassau formerly used comparable sales to set assessments. The new system, inaugurated for the tentative assessment roll issued in January, takes the lowest of an array of values, including the prior year's assessment, a recent sale of the property or an assessment reduction as the result of a tax protest.

But the audit said the method has not been tested for accuracy, and that it "may impact homeowners by shifting the [residential] assessed valuation from both top- and bottom-tier properties to middle-tier properties." The audit defined lower-tier as homes valued below $333,000, and top-tier as those with a market value greater than $440,000.

Maragos did not provide an estimate of what effect this change will have on tax bills. However, if assessments are reduced unequally, those who receive smaller decreases will pay more as a percentage than those who get steeper reductions.

The final audit mirrors findings of a draft obtained by Newsday in February. In the draft, Maragos estimated owners of midrange homes would see property tax bills increase an average of $227. Owners of high-end houses would see an average tax decrease of $173 and owners of the least expensive houses would see an average drop of $55.

Asked Monday about estimated tax increases, a spokesman said Maragos does not comment on draft reports and the office "does not have that information" at this time.

Maragos also found in his review that Nassau's new method, by taking the lowest in an array of values, could mean some homes are underassessed, and others that are similar receiving different assessments. The audit suggested the new method may prompt more homeowners to challenge their taxes, rather than reduce the 116,493 residential protests filed this year. The county, for more than a decade, has paid a yearly average of $100 million in refunds because of erroneous assessments, a major factor in Nassau's fiscal crisis.

Maragos joined Mangano at a news conference Monday, where the county executive touted a series of assessment reforms that he said made the system fairer and more efficient.

Mangano said he has established a process of reviewing and resolving residential assessments before tax bills go out, making refunds unnecessary. He also announced a residential "Taxpayers' Bill of Rights" to ensure that homeowners receive a fair assessment.

"These steps are transforming the broken property tax assessment system that left Nassau County in a fiscal mess," Mangano said.

Maragos said his office has worked with the administration to reform assessment. "A lot of improvements have been made, but the system is not yet perfect," Maragos said.

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