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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: Laura Curran faces daunting property assessment issues

Inequities in Nassau County’s assessment system are decades old, and won’t disappear easily.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Wednesday, Jan.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018 in Mineola. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Three months into her term, County Executive Laura Curran is between a rock and a hard place in trying to make a deal on addressing inequities in Nassau’s property assessment system.

On Monday, county lawmakers put off a vote on two contract amendments requested by Curran that would allow vendors to determine the value of all county properties by January 2019.

Jerry Laricchiuta, head of Nassau’s Civil Service Employees Association, said the amendments would violate union contracts stipulating that county workers can’t be laid off and their work outsourced to private vendors.

It’s an issue that first came up in 2011 after then-County Executive Edward Mangano brought on outside vendors to negotiate quick settlement of more than 60,000 assessment appeals. The work usually had been handled by assessment department employees.

With that, the Mangano administration also significantly reduced the size of the assessment department — a move the CSEA challenged successfully.

It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, because while former employees won a total of some $1 million in back pay, they didn’t get their jobs back.

“We don’t blame Laura for not knowing, she’s new,” Laricchiuta said in an interview Tuesday. “But the work she wants done is work that should be done by county employees.”

Is the union using the issue to press Curran on other union-related matters? Contracts for the CSEA and Nassau’s other major unions expired in December, and union officials say negotiations have been stalled.

“We are trying to talk to the county executive about some other issues,” Laricchiuta said.

However, a disputed memorandum of agreement that would restore millions of dollars in employee longevity pay is not among them. “I think that would be unethical to tie that with this,” Laricchiuta said.

But even if the union challenge is resolved, Curran still will have to deal with lawmakers opposed to the contract amendments.

Some Republicans want assurances that changes in assessment, per a state law that applies to Nassau and New York City, won’t increase taxes by more than 6 percent a year.

That would result in only a gradual increase of the tax burden on underassessed properties, many of which are in neighborhoods that traditionally vote Republican.

But what works for Republican legislators won’t work for Democratic lawmakers. Democrats say slowing increases on underassessed properties would, in turn, slow relief for owners of overassessed properties, many of whom live in minority neighborhoods that traditionally vote Democratic.

But the politics of bringing fairness and equity to Nassau’s assessment system always has been tricky.

For decades, Nassau’s GOP backed the use of 1938 construction costs for setting assessment, which in turn determines how much property owners pay in school, county and other taxes.

That changed due to successful court challenges, and the fact that Democrats — for the first time in 75 years — won a majority in the county legislature in 2000.

But updating the values sparked a public outcry, too — so much so that Nassau went to the state for the 6 percent cap.

All of which leaves Curran, like her predecessors, no easy way out.

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