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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau assessment: The fog starts to lift

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola is shown on Thursday, Jan 12, 2017. Taxpayers come to the office if they have questions about their property taxes. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

“Assessment, it’s not so incomprehensible anymore.”

Perhaps that should be Nassau’s new motto, given that a record number of residents, fired up by Newsday’s investigation into inequities in the system, appealed their assessments.

And many did it on their own, rather than going through third-party businesses who make money by taking a cut of residents’ successful appeals.

This is groundbreaking.

Because Nassau residents now have the county’s broken assessment system figured out.

Appeal — that is, assert that Nassau’s system, which is supposed to be accurate and fair, is wrong — and you win.

Trust in Nassau, however, and you lose — by being tagged to cover the cost of other residents’ property tax savings.

Quick review.

What is assessment?

The easiest thing is to envision a pie. And let’s say that pie is the amount in taxes to be collected by a school district. Assessment determines how large a slice — and by extension, how much in property taxes — lands on a property owner’s plate.

The slice shrinks for those who win assessment appeals — and in Nassau, since 2010 when County Executive Edward Mangano overhauled the process, most appeals have been successful.

But the slice — and by extension, the property tax bill — grows for those who do nothing.

Newsday’s investigation showed that Mangano’s overhaul, over seven years, shifted $1.7 billion in taxes from those who successfully appealed to those who did not.

That’s a monster slice.

Which is why thousands of residents — one in five of those who appealed — appealed their assessments for the first time since 2010.

That was a record. So too was the number of appeals by disabled residents, low and middle-income senior citizens and residents of mostly black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

And the record-breaking didn’t end there either: More than a third of those who filed challenges for the first time did so sans help from Nassau’s cottage industry of tax appeal firms — which charge fees that often add up to half a property owner’s first year tax savings.

Still, the newfound zest for appeals could be a double-edged sword. That’s because the number of appeals will continue to grow, even after the county’s planned 2018 reassessment resets the value of all county properties.

Distrust of a broken assessment system fueled appeals.

Which means Nassau needs to hire a qualified assessor, staff up the assessment office and — most of all — find a way to pay off Nassau’s multimillion-dollar refund backlog, while mitigating the cost of successful appeals in the future.

This year’s number of record-breaking appeals show that residents have figured out the system. When, however, will Nassau’s elected officials figure out the fix?

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