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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Shed light with hearings on Nassau assessment

For more than a year, Newsday’s Matt Clark has detailed the plentiful flaws in Nassau’s assessment system.

It’s inaccurate.

It’s unfair.

And the shift in tax burden to property owners who do not appeal their assessments could become even more burdensome with the new federal tax reform law — which limits deductions in state and local taxes to $10,000.

In short, it’s a mess — and made even more opaque by the complexity of the system itself, and the lack of clarity about what’s not working and why.

Jack Schnirman, who became county comptroller earlier this month, said Wednesday that his office is assessing the assessor’s office, as part of a review of county departments and operations.

And Laura Curran, the new Nassau County executive, has appointed a task force to review everything assessment. Big issues include the more than $300 million in owed refunds and an appeals settlement program put into place by Curran’s predecessor, Republican Edward Mangano.

For all their efforts, however, Curran and Schnirman — Democrats who assumed offices held for eight years by Republicans — are newbies at attempting to make sense of the county’s broken assessment system, which has been racking up debt and fueling budget deficits for decades.

Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), presiding officer of the GOP-controlled county legislature, said he would take a different approach, with legislative hearings on assessment.

“That is something that we can, and that we should do,” he said Wednesday.

In 1992, State Supreme Court Justice Leo E. McGinity declared Nassau’s system unconstitutional. McGinity found that, “similarly situated taxpayers” received disparate treatment from a system that had not revalued properties since 1938 — before Levittown fed a building boom that made Long Island the nation’s first post World War II suburb.

But the county didn’t revaluate property until after a 1997 lawsuit — supported by the U.S. Justice Department — determined that the system favored wealthier property owners, who were undertaxed, over African American homeowners, who were overtaxed.

Nicolello was into his and the newly created legislature’s first term back then. From that perch he saw everything, including: Nassau’s hiring of a vendor to handle reassessment, property owners turning out in force to complain, former County Executive Thomas Suozzi’s successful push for an appointed, rather than elected, assessor; and Mangano’s creation of a settlement program that saved Nassau money — while shifting the tax burden to property owners who don’t file successful challenges.

Much of that played out in public.

“We all want to see a fix, and a hearing is a way to get all sorts of ideas to percolate up,” Nicolello said.

What about going back to a system where the assessor is elected?

“It won’t solve the issue, but I preferred an elective, only from the standpoint of accountability,” Nicolello said.

“With Mangano, it was the county executive’s political calculations, in part, that delayed when a new revaluation would take place,” Nicolello said. The revaluation is slated for 2019.

“With an elective, it’s not the county executive’s call any more, it’s the person answering to the people,” he said.

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