So far, so good.
Experts in property tax assessment have found little to criticize in the first moves and proposals by Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano to freeze and overhaul the county's system, which now generates some $90 million a year in successful property tax challenges.
But they say he will have his work cut out for him politically as he undertakes what he Thursday called "the granddaddy of structural reform."
"There's a tremendous amount of anxiety in the system . . . your county executive may be on the right track," said Jane Malme, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., a state that underwent lengthy structural reforms of its own. "There's a history that has to be, in a sense, overcome."
Mangano, who ran on a platform of fixing assessments, said last week that Nassau's residential taxpayers already enjoy a "much fairer and more equitable system" than they did before a court-ordered 2003 countywide reassessment. But he said the choking burden of debt from old commercial tax refunds and a grievance process that rapidly continues to generate new ones are an urgent and growing problem, now accounting for almost half of the county's entire debt load.
Assessment pros like the bipartisan flavor of Mangano's choice of Patrick Foye, a former official under Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer, to head his assessment review team. Foye joined Mangano in Albany on Wednesday to meet with legislative leaders to pave the way for planned changes.
They also note the continued presence - so far - of Ted Jankowski, the respected former Boston assessor hired 11 months ago by the previous administration to fix the system. Jankowski was criticized by Republicans in the last campaign season as a patronage hire and an out-of-towner.
His first tax roll, delivered last week, featured big assessment reductions, and he calculates that it is 25 percent more accurate than last year's.
"He has incredible skills," said Lee Kyriacou, former director of the state's Office of Real Property Services. What really needs fixing in Nassau, Kyriacou said, has less to do with the accuracy of the tax roll and much more with the separate agencies that handle tax challenges, and their rules. Nassau is the only system in New York where someone grieving their taxes can win a refund without presenting any evidence of an error, he said.
"If you challenge your assessment anywhere else in the state, if you provide no information at all, the assessor's assessment stands," he said. "In Nassau, the Assessment Review Commission starts from scratch, and doesn't take the assessment as correct unless other information is provided."
Mangano's plan to freeze assessments to buy breathing room for a system review, and then explore new cyclical reassessments up to every five years, is not far from what the state considers a best practice.
Annual reassessments are "the ideal," but if that's not practicable, then the state encourages them every two, three or four years, Geoffrey Gloak, a spokesman for the Office of Real Property Services, said.
Cyclical reassessment "gives the assessor's staff time to put out good numbers" that may be less prone to challenge, said Thomas Frey, executive director of the New York State Assessors Association.
But most assessors warned that waiting too long to do reassessments has proven unfair and politically dangerous in a volatile market. "The sticker shock is so great, it creates a lot of upheaval," said Pete Rodda, assessor for Forsyth County, N.C.
Mangano this week also proposed limiting challenges to once in each assessment cycle, an approach without precedent in New York, but which Malme called "perfectly logical." Connecticut assessors are calling on their legislature to allow the same limits.
Nassau taxpayers whipsawed by the roller-coaster rise and fall of property values may find it reassuring to know their assessments will be stable for a few years, the experts say. But the taxpayer rage that powered Mangano's campaign has another source, one that he may find harder to resolve.
"Everyone is so upset about the level of taxes that they're just automatically complaining," Kyriacou said.