Of Nassau homeowners who contested their taxes this year, 73% won their challenges. Newsday politics reporter Scott Eidler discusses. Credit: Newsday

Nassau County was supposed to have established an accurate tax roll in 2020 — its first update in 10 years — and ended the practice of granting mass, automatic settlements to property owners who challenged their assessments.

The county spent more than $5 million to reassess 385,000 residential properties, and the results appeared successful. The portion of assessment reductions dropped from 80% in 2019-20 to 25% in the 2020-21 tax year, the first year of a reassessment program that was implemented under then-Nassau County Executive Laura Curran's administration.

Four years later, the percentage of property owners who have won reductions that lowered their tax burden remains stubbornly high, approaching levels prior to the reassessment, new county data shows.

In the second year of reassessment, 2021-22, the share of reductions nearly doubled, from 25% to 48% of challengers. Then, in 2022-23, 73% of property owners who protested won reductions.

The county's Assessment Review Commission gave reductions to 69% of homeowners who protested their assessments for the upcoming tax year, 2023-24, according to new county data obtained by Newsday. In all, 154,828 of the 223,821 homeowners who filed tax challenges received reductions that lowered their tax burden.

The Assessment Review Commission granted an average reduction of 6.39% for 2023-24, compared to 5.9% a year earlier, the data shows. The average reduction was highest in 2013-2014, at 13%.

Lawmakers, including Nassau Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury), expressed concern with the persistently high level of assessment reductions. 

"Large settlements compromise the integrity of the tax rolls, resulting in inequities for families who don't grieve. We're headed in the wrong direction," Bynoe said.

"The families that have shouldered more than their fair share throughout this process will continue to do so if they're not grieving, and it's unfortunate that we find ourselves back in the same situation," she added.

Fewer successful challenges would indicate the tax roll is more accurate, Nassau Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said.

"Ultimately, the goal is to just get to the point where people are more comfortable with their assessments, reduce the number of challenges, and then the issue becomes a smaller issue for the county," he said.

County officials declined interview requests, or to provide specific reasons for why assessment reductions have remained at high levels.

County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, said in a statement there was an "error-riddled assessment" conducted under Curran, a Democrat. But he was unable to cite any systemic errors that would have resulted in the high number of settlements.

Assessment experts have called Curran's reassessment an accurate reflection of property values.

They cited other reasons for the high settlement numbers, such as Nassau's culture of grieving assessments, which encourages property owners to appeal.

In New York, there is no penalty for grieving, while in other states the property owner risks losing and getting stuck with a higher assessment.

Also, Nassau has frozen taxes for the past three years, citing instability in the housing market. The freezes have caused property valuations to become less accurate and thus more susceptible to successful challenges.

And property owners benefit from a lower and more favorable ratio used to determine assessment reductions.

The ratio stems from a 2011 court settlement that mandates Nassau and tax certiorari firms agree each year on the ratio used in the appeals process. In 2016, the Mangano administration agreed with the firms to extend the stipulation through the 2025-26 tax year.

Homeowners who don't challenge their assessments typically are subject to a higher ratio.

When the county Department of Assessment first calculates a homeowner’s "tentative assessed value" in January, it uses a level of assessment of .1%. The Assessment Department has used this ratio since the 2020-21 tax year.

Homeowners who want to challenge their assessments go before the county Assessment Review Commission, which can decide to award a new property value.

For the upcoming tax year, the ratio was 0.08%. A year earlier, it was 0.09%, and the year before, it was 0.095%. In 2020, the Assessment Review Commission applied the same ratio, 0.10%.

County watchdogs say application of the separate ratio causes inaccuracies in the assessment roll.

In 2020, then-Nassau Comptroller Jack Schnirman's office said in an report: "Each year, ARC applied the separate stipulated ratio to the portion of the roll that grieved. These reductions effectively negated the freeze, [thus] deteriorating and destabilizing the accuracy of the entire roll."

Assessment Review Commission chairman Stephen Bucaria said in a statement  that he and his staff "review every property to determine if it is entitled to a reduction."

"We are working with residents to make sure the Assessment Review Commission process is carried out in a fair, accurate and transparent manner," he said.

Larry Clark, former director of strategic initiatives for the nonprofit International Association of Assessing Officers, said Nassau needs to justify the high number of reductions.

If the reductions have been arbitrary, with the goal of simply avoiding litigation, Nassau will have to reckon with an inaccurate tax roll at some point, he said.

The new county data for 2023-24 shows the county is again effectively granting mass settlements, as it did in the decade prior to the 2020 reassessment.

From 2012 through 2019, when the rolls were frozen, the county settled an average of 80% of protests, peaking at 83% in 2017-18. It caused a shift of more than $1 billion in property value onto homeowners who had not challenged their assessments.

Often it's in the best interests of the county to settle the cases before September, when the tax roll is typically set.

This way, Nassau is not liable for refunding homeowners who later win reductions in small claims court.

In the first year of reassessment, when Nassau granted only 25% of appeals, many of the challengers went to small claims court and won. The Assessment Review Commission did not lower the ratio for appellants that year. It's also the same year the county owed $17 million in refunds.

Mass settlements allow Nassau to avoid potentially hefty legal judgments in thousands of cases, but "if the value changes aren’t warranted, then all you've done is delay dealing with a problem," Clark said.

"The next time there’s a reappraisal, the problem is going to be back," he said.

Nassau County was supposed to have established an accurate tax roll in 2020 — its first update in 10 years — and ended the practice of granting mass, automatic settlements to property owners who challenged their assessments.

The county spent more than $5 million to reassess 385,000 residential properties, and the results appeared successful. The portion of assessment reductions dropped from 80% in 2019-20 to 25% in the 2020-21 tax year, the first year of a reassessment program that was implemented under then-Nassau County Executive Laura Curran's administration.

Four years later, the percentage of property owners who have won reductions that lowered their tax burden remains stubbornly high, approaching levels prior to the reassessment, new county data shows.

In the second year of reassessment, 2021-22, the share of reductions nearly doubled, from 25% to 48% of challengers. Then, in 2022-23, 73% of property owners who protested won reductions.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Nassau County spent more than $5 million to reassess 385,000 residential properties in 2020 and create an accurate tax roll.
  • The reassessment was supposed to end the county's practice of granting mass, automatic settlements to property owners who challenged their assessments and shifting the tax burden to those who did not appeal.
  • Four tax years later, the share of property owners who have won reductions remains persistently high, approaching levels prior to the reassessment, new county data shows.

The county's Assessment Review Commission gave reductions to 69% of homeowners who protested their assessments for the upcoming tax year, 2023-24, according to new county data obtained by Newsday. In all, 154,828 of the 223,821 homeowners who filed tax challenges received reductions that lowered their tax burden.

The Assessment Review Commission granted an average reduction of 6.39% for 2023-24, compared to 5.9% a year earlier, the data shows. The average reduction was highest in 2013-2014, at 13%.

Lawmakers, including Nassau Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury), expressed concern with the persistently high level of assessment reductions. 

"Large settlements compromise the integrity of the tax rolls, resulting in inequities for families who don't grieve. We're headed in the wrong direction," Bynoe said.

"The families that have shouldered more than their fair share throughout this process will continue to do so if they're not grieving, and it's unfortunate that we find ourselves back in the same situation," she added.

Fewer successful challenges would indicate the tax roll is more accurate, Nassau Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said.

"Ultimately, the goal is to just get to the point where people are more comfortable with their assessments, reduce the number of challenges, and then the issue becomes a smaller issue for the county," he said.

Reasons for rise 

County officials declined interview requests, or to provide specific reasons for why assessment reductions have remained at high levels.

County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, said in a statement there was an "error-riddled assessment" conducted under Curran, a Democrat. But he was unable to cite any systemic errors that would have resulted in the high number of settlements.

Assessment experts have called Curran's reassessment an accurate reflection of property values.

They cited other reasons for the high settlement numbers, such as Nassau's culture of grieving assessments, which encourages property owners to appeal.

In New York, there is no penalty for grieving, while in other states the property owner risks losing and getting stuck with a higher assessment.

Also, Nassau has frozen taxes for the past three years, citing instability in the housing market. The freezes have caused property valuations to become less accurate and thus more susceptible to successful challenges.

And property owners benefit from a lower and more favorable ratio used to determine assessment reductions.

The ratio stems from a 2011 court settlement that mandates Nassau and tax certiorari firms agree each year on the ratio used in the appeals process. In 2016, the Mangano administration agreed with the firms to extend the stipulation through the 2025-26 tax year.

Homeowners who don't challenge their assessments typically are subject to a higher ratio.

When the county Department of Assessment first calculates a homeowner’s "tentative assessed value" in January, it uses a level of assessment of .1%. The Assessment Department has used this ratio since the 2020-21 tax year.

Homeowners who want to challenge their assessments go before the county Assessment Review Commission, which can decide to award a new property value.

For the upcoming tax year, the ratio was 0.08%. A year earlier, it was 0.09%, and the year before, it was 0.095%. In 2020, the Assessment Review Commission applied the same ratio, 0.10%.

County watchdogs say application of the separate ratio causes inaccuracies in the assessment roll.

In 2020, then-Nassau Comptroller Jack Schnirman's office said in an report: "Each year, ARC applied the separate stipulated ratio to the portion of the roll that grieved. These reductions effectively negated the freeze, [thus] deteriorating and destabilizing the accuracy of the entire roll."

Assessment Review Commission chairman Stephen Bucaria said in a statement  that he and his staff "review every property to determine if it is entitled to a reduction."

"We are working with residents to make sure the Assessment Review Commission process is carried out in a fair, accurate and transparent manner," he said.

Larry Clark, former director of strategic initiatives for the nonprofit International Association of Assessing Officers, said Nassau needs to justify the high number of reductions.

If the reductions have been arbitrary, with the goal of simply avoiding litigation, Nassau will have to reckon with an inaccurate tax roll at some point, he said.

Return to mass settlements

The new county data for 2023-24 shows the county is again effectively granting mass settlements, as it did in the decade prior to the 2020 reassessment.

From 2012 through 2019, when the rolls were frozen, the county settled an average of 80% of protests, peaking at 83% in 2017-18. It caused a shift of more than $1 billion in property value onto homeowners who had not challenged their assessments.

Often it's in the best interests of the county to settle the cases before September, when the tax roll is typically set.

This way, Nassau is not liable for refunding homeowners who later win reductions in small claims court.

In the first year of reassessment, when Nassau granted only 25% of appeals, many of the challengers went to small claims court and won. The Assessment Review Commission did not lower the ratio for appellants that year. It's also the same year the county owed $17 million in refunds.

Mass settlements allow Nassau to avoid potentially hefty legal judgments in thousands of cases, but "if the value changes aren’t warranted, then all you've done is delay dealing with a problem," Clark said.

"The next time there’s a reappraisal, the problem is going to be back," he said.

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