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Pact in Nassau to pay $95M in tax refunds

Nassau County seal.

Nassau County seal. Photo Credit: Nassau County

The Nassau County Legislature agreed on Monday to provide $95 million in funding to pay property tax refunds, ending a more than yearlong standoff between Democrats and Republicans over the issue.

The legislature approved $40 million in borrowing, and under a bipartisan agreement, Nassau will borrow $35 million more on Sept. 23. The final $20 million will come from county operating funds.

The $40 million in borrowing, called with several other emergency items, passed unanimously with little discussion. Three of the legislature's 19 members were absent: Democrats Wayne Wink of Roslyn and Kevan Abrahams of Freeport, and Republican Francis Becker of Lynbrook. Borrowing requires a supermajority, and minority Democrats had to provide at least three votes.

"There are times when bipartisanship does work. This is one of them," said legislative Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow).

"Even though it took a long time, working together does work," said Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury).

Democratic lawmakers had refused to allow bonding to pay property tax refunds since late 2011 when Mangano asked the legislature to borrow $102 million to pay refunds, primarily for commercial properties.

Democrats said they wanted a fair legislative redistricting process before they would agree to provide the votes for borrowing. They also argued that they had not been given enough information on the commercial settlements to make informed decisions, and contended that Mangano could pay the smaller sum for residential homeowners with money available in his budget.

The Mangano administration settled most residential challenges last year before they could turn into refunds, but some 17,000 homeowners won refunds in small claims court in 2011 that have yet to be paid. Some commercial refunds have been accumulating for more than 10 years while many commercial settlements cover multiple tax years.

"Finally, finally, finally the legislature has taken some action," Mineola attorney Donald Leistman, head of Nassau's tax challenge bar, said after Monday's vote. He said Nassau "probably needs at least another $200 million to pay all property owners that are owed refunds."

Leistman said he was concerned that lawmakers directed that residential homeowners, who are owed about $20 million to $25 million, be paid before commercial property owners.

"Sometimes government forgets that commercial property owners have constitutional rights also," he said. "A lot of these commercial owners have been waiting an awful long time to get paid."

An official at the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority, a state agency with oversight of the county's spending, said "the board will examine the plan when it is presented to them."

County Comptroller George Maragos estimated recently that the backlog of unresolved property challenges had grown to $335 million. A precise number is not available because of tax challenges that have not yet been settled.

Historically, county officials have not included the tax refund obligation in their assessment of the county's finances. For instance, Maragos said recently that Nassau probably ended 2012 with a $41.6 million surplus, but he did not include the growing refund liability.

"Bipartisan cooperation has allowed us to move pay homeowners their rightful refunds, correct errors we inherited from the past and move Nassau County forward," Mangano said.

"I'm pleased we can come to a bipartisan agreement that pays Nassau homeowners the refunds they are rightfully owed, while reducing our reliance on borrowing in the future," Abrahams said.

Democratic and Republican officials also said Monday that they had reached an agreement to restore $2.3 million in funding to youth groups for the rest of this year.

In an effort to reduce the county budget deficit, Mangano, backed by the GOP legislative majority, last summer redirected to the general fund revenues from red-light camera fines that had funded outside social service agencies, including those for youth services. The funding for those agency programs was canceled for the second part of 2012 and partially restored for this year.

The funding from the agreement restores most of the agencies to 2012 funding.

"I'm grateful that the money was restored, but I think we still need a dedicated funding stream, like the red light cameras," said Janice Miles, who heads Concerned Citizens for Roslyn Youth Inc.

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