It looks like it's about to become harder to win a property tax reduction in Nassau.
This week, most county property owners will begin receiving notices that their tax assessments have dropped - as much as 11 percent for homeowners and an average 22 percent for businesses.
But don't plan on lower tax bills because tax rates likely will go up to make up for the value reductions, Nassau officials said.
And if the assessment changes make the valuations more accurate, they'll dramatically reduce property owners' chances of challenging their taxes successfully this year - or may even discourage property owners who still are overassessed from filing challenges.
'Like a mirror trick'
Patrick Yula, 62, a real estate agent and teacher from Plainview, complained, "It's almost like a mirror trick. They change the value so as to minimize the protests, but nevertheless all of the tax rates increase so it comes out to a zero-sum equation . . . All I know is, taxes go up."
Nassau Assessor Ted Jankowski described it as "a little like a seesaw. If values go down, the tax rate goes up" while the tax bill stays the same.
The reason lower assessments won't mean lower tax bills is that school districts and other taxing agencies have to raise their rates just to maintain the same amount of revenue already being collected.
Tax bills, which won't reflect the new valuations until late next year, are calculated by multiplying the assessment by the tax rate set by schools, towns, special districts and the county.
But what sounds like a shell game for taxpayers, actually is the county's way of correcting inequities in Nassau's assessment system to pare the huge number of successful tax challenges, which cost Nassau a budget-straining $90 million a year.
The county is still borrowing to pay a portion of the refunds - a practice that was a major contributor to Nassau's near bankruptcy a decade ago, when refunds averaged $100 million a year.
Nassau says it sets single-family home values based on comparable sales, while commercial values are based on a formula involving businesses' operating incomes and losses.
But the nearly 140,000 homeowners and business operators who each year protest their assessments - and that's about a quarter of Nassau's total properties - say they don't understand how the county arrives at their value. They just know it's wrong.
Jankowski promises he is providing more "transparency" along with accuracy this year.
"Clearly it will cut down on refunds because the accuracy of the values is better," said Jankowski, contending that residential values are 25 percent more accurate than assessments issued a year ago.
Named to his job last January, Jankowksi signed his first assessment roll on Dec. 23, triggering this week's notices.
"We feel pretty confident we've greatly improved values this year," Jankowski said.
Some tax appeal attorneys are concerned the reductions may persuade taxpayers who still may be overassessed not to file property tax challenges.
"The county is using the complexity of calculating the correct level of assessment to deceive the public into believing they are fairly assessed, and to discourage them from timely filing protests," said leading residential tax appeal attorney Fred Perry.
Jankowski said residential assessment reductions will average zero to 11 percent, depending upon the taxpayer's school district. Assessments increased in a few districts largely because of "a much more accurate depiction of the market," he said.
The new assessments should appear on the county's Web site, mynassauproperty.com, Monday, the day they become effective. Property owners can challenge the assessments through March 1.
Because of the way Nassau's assessment system works, the new values won't be used to calculate taxes until the October 2011 school tax bills.
Long delay before effect
Nassau is the only county in the state with that nearly two-year lag between the new assessment roll and tax bills. Suffolk County towns do their own assessments, which are issued in May for December tax bills.
The lag, instituted in 2002, was meant to cut down on refunds but hasn't worked.
After voters agreed to change the elected position to an appointed job, Jankowski had sole power to set the assessment roll and sign it before Edward Mangano, who defeated Suozzi in November, was sworn in Friday.
"Under the law, I cannot stop the process," said Mangano, who has promised his own changes. "The assessor has done his job really before I take office."
Both Republicans and Democrats complained last year that the assessment system wasn't working.