Explaining property taxes in Nassau County is never easy - especially for school officials trying to tell homeowners why a drop in their tax assessments doesn't necessarily mean lower payments.
Homeowners might well get the opposite impression, however. This week, many are getting notices that their assessments are dropping once again.
Nassau County's assessor, Ted Jankowski, says home assessments are declining by a little over 4 percent on average, and by as much as 11 percent, compared to an average 17 percent drop last year. The latest assessments will affect tax bills going out to homeowners in October 2011.
But falling assessments don't necessarily translate into lower tax bills - as school administrators are quick to say. To the contrary, after voters in a school district have approved a budget, the district can simply direct the county to boost tax rates to compensate for the lower assessments and to generate the approved money.
"There may be some people who get the impression, 'Oh, that's great! My taxes will drop 11 percent.' But that's not the case," said Alan Adcock, assistant superintendent for business in the Massapequa school district. "All that happens is that the tax burden gets redistributed."
In Nassau County, school spending accounts for more than 60 percent of property taxes. So Adcock, like colleagues in other districts, spends much of his time explaining the intricacies of the tax system.
One point made by Adcock is that taxes in any given year will tend to follow a pattern known as "the rule of thirds." That is to say, about one-third of homes will get tax increases in the average range, one-third will get increases substantially above the district average and one-third will get increases substantially below average.
Reasons are complex. One major factor is the increasing number of Nassau home and business owners who are successfully challenging their tax assessments. As they win lower assessments, other owners must pay higher taxes to make up the difference.
In addition, the state is gradually cutting back on STAR tax-relief payments to schools. Such payments substitute for a portion of property taxes. As STAR payments decline, homeowners must make up the difference, and the biggest losers are often senior citizens living on fixed incomes who qualify for the largest STAR tax exemptions.
Joel Katz, a Port Washington homeowner and civic activist, says the only sure route to lower property taxes is curbed school spending, not lower assessments. Katz, for example, favors consolidation of Nassau's 56 school districts into fewer units to save money.
"If assessed values go down, and districts need to raise a certain amount of money, all they do is raise rates," Katz said.