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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Jumping the shark on Nassau County reassessments

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola on Oct. 3, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

"We have actually gone back to the future here," Richard Nicolello, presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, said this week, during the umpteenth fracas over who mishandled the county assessment system.

Nicolello, a Republican from New Hyde Park, recalled "complaints about the prior administration with frozen assessment rolls," a reference to former GOP County Executive Edward Mangano.

"We have a frozen assessment roll now," Nicolello said.

He was referring to County Executive Laura Curran's decision to freeze the rolls for a year because of surging home sales during the coronavirus pandemic.

He also chided Democrats for complaining about Mangano's mass settlement program, "because it shifted the burden from one part of the population to another."

"We have a mass settlement program now," Nicolello went on.

Somewhere, away from the legislative chambers in Mineola, lawyers tasked with defending Nassau County in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2019, may have been listening.

And with great interest.

U.S. District Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall, during preliminary proceedings on the matter, questioned attorneys and heard arguments about how Nassau has handled assessment since agreeing to changes in the 1990s that were supposed to remedy the burden placed on minority homeowners.

In a memo filed with the court last month, lawyers for the county argued for dismissal of the 2019 lawsuit, which seeks damages for homeowners said to have suffered under Mangano's freeze and settlement programs.

The county says that the Curran administration's countywide reassessment already has addressed the issue.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs, who include Wayne Hall, former mayor of Hempstead Village, argue that damages are continuing because Curran, like Mangano, still has freeze and settlement programs in place.

Nassau and lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment last week because the case is ongoing.

During one preliminary hearing on the lawsuit, Regina Calcaterra, the attorney representing Nassau, explained how different county administrations have handled reassessment since Nassau entered into a consent agreement to settle the earlier federal lawsuit.

"[U]nderstanding how government works and different administrations," she told the judge, "…You have a new administration that comes in about ten years later … "

"Stop for a second," Hall said. That " … just reinforces the argument … that we could end up here, over and over and over again."

Possibly.

But with the 2021 county executive campaign in full swing, it is certain that Nassau's residents will be hearing about reassessment — over and over and over again.

Republicans can be expected to say the tax rolls are rife with errors.

Democrats will say reassessment is a process, and that one party's errors are the other party's readjustments — particularly in a reassessment that multiple analyses, including one by Newsday, have pronounced as sound.

Republicans, as Nicolello did, will blame Curran for doing what Mangano did by freezing the rolls and settling claims en masse.

Democrats, as Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams of Freeport did during a recent legislative session, will say that Republicans did not criticize Mangano's skewing of the system, which shifted the tax burden from residents who grieved their taxes to those who did not.

Already, with Curran running for reelection against Republican Bruce Blakeman, the political mailers are flying, with the parties promising fixes or pointing fingers — while encouraging Nassau residents to grieve their assessments.

Nassau has tried, over decades, and through the administrations of four county executives — two Democrats and two Republicans — to get property assessment right.

But on Long Island, where raising taxes is the third rail in local politics, any movement on assessment engenders anger — from those whose new assessments generate higher taxes.

The result also has been multiple lawsuits, including the latest civil rights challenge, which has put the Curran administration in the position of defending Nassau against allegations of discrimination initially directed at Mangano's assessment policies.

As Calcaterra put it, Nassau officials " … at that time … were attempting to, wanted to change what they deemed to be a broken assessment system. And they put [freeze and mass settlement] … policies in place."

Those policies, she went on to say, "ultimately did revert" Nassau back to where it was before the 1990s consent decree.

"Right," Hall said, according to a transcript. "Revert it back to a scheme that the county was on full notice, was problematic and problematic in terms of discriminatory impact."

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