A state Court of Appeals decision denying Nassau County's move to shift payment of property tax refunds onto towns and school districts leaves County Executive Edward Mangano with some hard choices.
He has to start paying hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial and other refunds, fix the county's perennially broken assessment system or seek state legislation so Nassau can escape future refund liability.
Each choice presents problems.
Nassau doesn't have an estimated $300 million to $450 million to pay current property tax judgments. And it may be impossible at this point to instill public trust in an assessment system so distressed that the property owner's best defense is to appeal. Those who don't file or win challenges face the prospect of paying higher taxes to make up lost revenue from successful assessment challenges.
It's no wonder property tax protests last year jumped to the highest level -- more than 150,000 -- since Nassau's countywide reassessment a decade ago. The protests are expected to keep on coming.
"The court has spoken and we will respect its decision," Mangano said in an interview Tuesday. But that doesn't mean he's done with the issue.
Mangano said he would seek support for state legislation to allow Nassau, like most state municipalities, to push the cost of assessment refunds down to schools, towns and other taxing entities.
But he acknowledged a change in state law is not going to happen in 2014, an election year.
The county executive has another possible route: building support for transferring the responsibility for assessments to towns.
"Historically, our research shows smaller assessment jurisdictions do a better, more accurate job on assessments," Mangano said.
Jon Kaiman, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, could be helpful on that score. As North Hempstead town supervisor, Kaiman supported the idea of shifting assessment duties to his town -- where a significant proportion of county-determined assessments had errors.
Mangano floated the idea of having towns take over the assessment job several months ago and said Tuesday he was open to working with Kaiman. But other town supervisors indicated little interest.
"I had hoped to sit down with them after a win in court," Mangano said. "It makes it harder because it didn't work out that way."
Mangano said he intended to continue a residential tax challenge settlement program. He also said he would push the state for a change in the assessment formula that would make it harder for challenges to succeed.
"The solution to this lies in Albany . . . ," he said.
At this point, the best solution may be to seek state aid for Nassau's towns to transition to performing their own assessments.
Yes, that would eliminate a liability that seems to keep growing in Nassau. But the best result could be what county commercial and residential property owners need -- assessments that are accurate, and fair.