MINEOLA, NEW YORK - Scenes from the County Assessor Office....

MINEOLA, NEW YORK - Scenes from the County Assessor Office. The Department of Assessment is responsible for developing fair and equitable assessments for all residential and commercial properties in Nassau County on an annual basis. Nassau County?s assessment roll includes over 418,000 properties with a value of $309 billion. Credit: Photo by Charles Eckert

It's hard to believe that the Nassau County assessor's office deliberately would tinker with assessments to raise taxes in middle-class neighborhoods - which tend to be most active in politics.

It's equally difficult to believe that the office would sign on to a new calculation method that would overassess properties in a low-wealth community such as Roosevelt while leaving wealthier communities underassessed.

Yet, that's essentially what happened, according to a draft audit of the office obtained by Newsday.

The Roosevelt example is the kind of inequity that resulted in a 1997 lawsuit alleging that Nassau's residential assessment system was racially discriminatory in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That complaint resulted in the county signing on to a consent decree in 2000, which forced Nassau to build what was supposed to be a fairer assessment system by 2003.

The draft audit came from the office of Nassau Comptroller George Maragos, who said early on after his election that he intended to dig out problems in the assessor's office.

Wednesday, his office said Maragos would not comment on the draft. The comptroller is awaiting response to the draft from County Executive Edward Mangano, who, under a change in county law that made the assessor elected rather than appointed, bears the weight of this mess.

One big issue brought to light by the draft report is that the assessor's office added a new, untested step to the county's assessment process for the 2012 tax year - modifying computer-generated mass appraisal numbers to make many assessments lower.

Lower assessments would, in theory at least, mitigate property owners' arguments that they are overassessed. That, again in theory, would reduce the number of successful appeals and the more than $1 billion Nassau has been forced to pay or bond out in refunds and interest.

But some of the modified assessments, according to the draft audit, are so low that they raise questions about whether they are accurate. Even then, as the draft report correctly points out, overly low assessments are no guarantee of lower taxes.

Meanwhile, Mangano's plan to lock in those lower values for four years - under his "Taxpayer Relief Act" - could create yet another unintentional impact, according to the draft report:

Property owners who didn't successfully appeal taxes in time for the tentative Jan. 3, 2011, roll would be left with higher assessments through 2016 to pick up the slack left by neighbors lucky enough to win lower ones.

But before throwing stones at Mangano - who still has time to explain what's happening to the comptroller's office or, better, fix the multiple, unintended consequences - property owners would do well to consider Maragos' other findings.

The assessor's office, according to the draft report, hasn't worked effectively for years stretching back to two former county executives, two elected and one appointed tax assessor. Workers do not have adequate training. The office doesn't know how to run the computer system that constitutes the heart of the county's assessment system.

The draft audit found that there are no protocols for entering information into the computer. In one case, fair market value for a yacht club in East Rockaway was reduced by a whopping 76 percent for no clear reason.

In other cases, the report found that workers made changes in the rolls using other workers' initials.

There are indications the system was flawed from the start, with the company charged with the post-consent decree reassessment flubbing some of its inspection work. The report also found other areas of concern, including a supervisor who applied to patent a process used in the office and then wanted to quit, but stay on as a consultant - at the same rate of pay.

These are troubling issues, big and small.

And one more indication why property owners have no confidence in an assessment system still waiting to be fixed.

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