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Albany weighs plan to limit Nassau assessment volatility

Hempstead Town Receiver of Taxes Donald Clavin speaks

Hempstead Town Receiver of Taxes Donald Clavin speaks with Cheryl Petri, deputy receiver of taxes, left, before a news conference at his office on Thursday. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

ALBANY — State lawmakers are considering a last-minute proposal by Nassau County that backers said would limit the volatility of tax assessments countywide but opponents contend is an outright “license to steal.”

At issue is a proposal backed by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran that is being considered for inclusion in the state budget, which legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are trying to adopt by Sunday. It would affect a pending countywide reassessment Curran announced previously.

According to a draft circulating in the State Legislature, Nassau would establish a new fund specifically to pay for assessment refunds due owners of single-, two- and three-family homes. The fund would be paid for by a charge on owners of similar homes. That fund would not be applied to refunds from commercial properties, which run much larger.

In short, residential properties pay for residential refunds; commercial properties for commercial refunds. The same would apply to condos and co-op housing, officials said.

Nassau officials couldn’t immediately specify the charge per household for the potential new fund.

Under another provision, if a hearing officer determines that a property was “excessively or unequally assessed by 5% or less,” there would be no reduction in assessment. And if, for example, the assessment was found to be 10 percent overvalued, the homeowner would receive a reduction of just 5 percent.

State legislators said the proposal was under active consideration as the budget deadline loomed.

Supporters are pitching it as a way to reduce a potentially volatile swing not only in assessments but also more fairly pay for assessment refunds.

“Five percent — it’s a margin of error and guess what? Assessment is not an exact science. The New York Office of Real Property Services says an assessment is good if it’s within 5 percent,” said Helena Williams, chief deputy county executive under Curran. Williams also said the change would help Nassau pay down debt on money it borrowed previously to pay for property refunds. Officials couldn’t immediately project how much revenue might be generated. A state source said the proposal had the backing of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

One Republican questioned the goal.

“It would seem to undermine the idea of assessing someone’s property accurately,” said Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City).

Going further, Hempstead Town Receiver of Taxes Donald Clavin called it a “license to steal” and a “money grab.”

“It’s saying right off the bat: They’re going to get 5 percent no matter what,” Clavin said in an interview Thursday. He also questioned what he called “secret legislation” that was “sprung on us” shortly before the budget deadline.

“The fact that they are trying to squeeze it in at the last minute shows it’s being done in an underhanded way and it’s not fair to the taxpayers,” Clavin said.

Williams disputed that characterization.

“Was it a secret bill? No. It was part of the budget process,” Williams said. “It wasn’t meant in any way to be a secret bill.”

Firms specializing in challenging tax assessments immediately began raising the alarm, with one declaring in an email to residents: “Your property taxes are about to go up!”

“County Executive is about to take away your rights to a Property Tax Reduction!” wrote Empire Tax Reductions. “This margin of error would restrict the rights of Nassau County homeowners to challenge their tax assessments . . . Imagine being overcharged 5% at the supermarket or your favorite restaurant without any recourse!”

Williams countered that such firms are scared because they generate lots of business from challenging assessments just 1 and 2 percent over determined value.

“They have more ability to litigate if the number has to be spot on,” Williams said. “For them, it’s a volume practice.”

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