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Nassau property assessment system continues to perpetuate inequities

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola

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

Diana Coleman, back in the 1990s, was one of six plaintiffs who, along with federal and state government, challenged Nassau’s assessment system.

Back then, the county used a 1938 formula based on construction costs to set assessments, a system that left poorer, mostly African-American communities paying higher than their fair share of taxes on properties while wealthier residents in more expensive homes paid less.

The lawsuit was slated to go to trial in March 2000, but two days before the scheduled start, Nassau officials -- without conceding discrimination -- agreed to conduct a court-supervised reassessment.

Fast forward.

And Nassau is, once again, planning reassessment.

But it won’t fix inequities Coleman fought in the 1990s, inequities that over the past several years under a settlement program put in place by former County Executive Edward Mangano have grown to engulf homeowners who did not appeal, or did not win appeals of their assessments.

On Tuesday, Newsday reported that Mangano’s successor, County Executive Laura Curran, will continue Mangano’s settlement program because the county cannot defend the accuracy of its assessment system.

For the past two years, more than half of county property owners have appealed their assessments. And under Mangano’s settlement program, which began in 2011, the county, by negotiating with law firms and other companies that handle appeals for property owners, tended to award reductions so generous that challengers settled before tax bills went out.

That saved Nassau money.

But the program -- along with Mangano’s decision to freeze almost all assessments -- locked into place inequities that significantly shifted the tax burden from those who successfully appealed to those who did not.

According to a Newsday analysis, some of the areas disproportionately impacted are in Elmont, Hicksville, Uniondale, East Meadow, Levittown, Glen Cove and the Nassau portion of Amityville.

Curran’s decision to continue the Mangano settlement program will continue the inequities, which largely reversed years of efforts to bolster the fairness and accuracy of assessments following the Coleman lawsuit.

Which means that homes in the county's majority black and Hispanic census tracts still will bear the brunt of inequity -- which would continue even after Nassau completes its new reassessment.

Earlier this year, the Curran administration pushed a proposal that would have provided tax relief for thousands of homeowners shouldering the shift in tax burden. But the effort, which lacked support from the legislature’s Republican majority, went nowhere.

Coleman, even after Nassau completed a reassessment in 2003, kept an eye on the issue. She was keenly aware -- and often spoke about -- her frustration with ongoing  disparities..

In March, Leon Friedman, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra Law School who helped craft the Coleman case, told Newsday that Nassau could face another lawsuit if its reassessment plan led to racial disparities.

"I can't say we would do it right away," Friedman said. "We would have to do analysis before we could decide to go forward."

Still, experts say that -- absent a crash in the housing market -- it could take decades for inequities to fairly balance out, even with reassessment.

Coleman, who over the years continued to fight for equity, died in 2015.

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