Thousands of Nassau homeowners may be shocked when they open their school tax bills this month.
Falling house values and successful assessment protests have helped push up school tax rates to more than double the increases projected when voters approved school budgets this spring. In some districts such as Roosevelt and Uniondale, rates have jumped 10 times higher than projected.
Records show the average school tax rate in Nassau increased 11.7 percent compared with the average 2.6 percent increase projected across Long Island when school budgets were approved this spring in accord with a new state tax cap. Tax rate increases range from 6.6 percent in a Valley Stream school district to 29 percent in the Roosevelt school district.
That means taxpayers whose home assessments stayed the same or increased this year probably will pay higher taxes than they expected. Even those whose assessments dropped may see their school tax bill increase. If assessed values drop, tax rates must increase to bring in the same amount of money. Each home within a school district pays a varying share of school taxes based on its assessment. If one home's assessment drops below its neighbor's, the neighbor's taxes go up.
In the Hempstead school district, for instance, school taxes on the average single-family home were projected to climb by 1.98 percent, boosting the average school tax bill from $4,663 to $4,755. The tax rate, however, increased 22.54 percent, which could hike taxes by at least $1,051 for the more than 120 homeowners whose assessments remained the same or increased this year.
The Massapequa school budget projected that taxes would rise 2.2 percent, or $141 on the average school tax bill of $6,408. However, the tax rate increased 9.29 percent, which could boost taxes about $595 this year for those who did not get an assessment reduction -- about half the households in the district, records show.
"It's sticker shock," said Hempstead Town Tax Receiver Donald Clavin. He said his office has received "hundreds of phone calls" from upset residents. "They've seen their assessment go down and their taxes go up. Some of them recognize their tax rates have changed significantly. People are saying, 'What happened to the tax cap?' It's very confusing for them."
Leslie Spitzkoff, 63, of North Hills, said she and her husband were "blindsided" when they opened their school tax bill and found a $1,200 increase even though her assessment remained unchanged.
The Herricks school district budgeted a 2.88 percent increase in taxes, but its tax rate is up more than 11 percent.
"How is this possible?" Spitzkoff said. "I want to know how this could happen without any notification. You vote for one thing and a totally different thing happens . . . I strongly feel the assessed tax be replaced with one closer to the 2.88 percent that was approved by voters."
Taxpayers will not find a direct correlation between assessment reductions and tax rate increases because the county assessor follows a complicated state formula to allocate the tax burden among commercial, residential, condominiums and utility properties within each school district. The shift is based on value changes, legal limits and levels of assessment. In addition, individual exemptions -- such as those that reduce assessments for veterans or low-income senior citizens -- can skew the tax burden.
The Nassau assessment department revised assessments in January 2011 when it first issued the values that were used to calculate this month's school taxes. It said then that most assessments had been reduced or remained the same to reflect "a declining market." Since then, more than 100,000 homeowners challenged their assessments.
Nassau's acting assessor Jim Davis said in a statement that other factors besides lower house values can lead to the tax rate increase, such as "the amount of state aid designated to each school district, and mandated and discretionary costs required of the school district."
Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, emphasized that the amount of money districts planned to raise from property taxes has not increased despite the higher tax rates. "The school tax levy is the same as what was approved by the voters in May," Deller said.
She said school boards forward to the county in August the amount they need to raise from property taxes. The county then calculates the needed tax rate, reflecting market values, continuing tax challenges and the type of properties in each area. "All of this varies from district to district," she said.
Cap not on individual taxes
Deller said the school boards had tried "to be very very straightforward in May" to assure residents that their proposed tax levies stayed within the state cap. The difficulty, she said, was that people assumed it was a cap on their individual taxes, not on the district's tax levy.
The state cap limits the increase in total property taxes raised by school districts to two percent plus the cost of some expenses, such as new construction and pensions.
"For us, it's frustrating," said Alan Adcock, deputy superintendent of the Massapequa School district. "We told our community at the time of the budget that the increase was within the cap at 2.2 percent . . . Now folks see the rate increase by 9.29 percent. It's misleading."
He said the school board "authorized a tax increase at the tax-cap level, 2.2 percent. That, in fact, is what we will collect."
Joel Katz, 77, a retired certified public accountant from Port Washington, wrote to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo complaining that his school taxes had increased by 11.2 percent, far above the 2.13 percent hike projected by the school district.
He said his house assessment dropped 3 percent but his taxes went up $703.
Katz said he checked his neighborhood and found "the assessed valuation of everybody's property went down, but not everybody's went down the same . . . Some homes went down as much as 17 percent. Usually the much-more expensive homes got the biggest reductions percentagewise. When the assessed valuations of those homes were reduced, more of the burden shifted to me with the 3 percent reduction. I have to carry a higher burden."
"My wife and I are both retired people. Our income does not go up, it goes down. It becomes a question of how much longer can we live in this house on the North Shore of Long Island and bear 10, 11, 12 percent increases in property taxes."
Total assessed value down
A Newsday review of values from the county assessor's office used to compute school tax bills shows that the total taxable assessed value in all of Nassau's 56 school districts dropped an overall 7.3 percent.
Communities on the high and low end of the economic scale saw the biggest changes: Brookville, a village of mostly upscale houses which crosses through several school districts on Nassau's North Shore, had the largest percentage drop in its taxable assessed value, decreasing 19.8 percent from last year. The second-largest slide was in Roosevelt, a community of modest homes where the taxable value went down by 17.7 percent.
Roosevelt school officials had projected an increase in its tax levy of less than 1 percent. But with the drop in taxable values on 99 percent of the district's single-family homes, the tax rate jumped 29 percent to bring in the same amount of property taxes anticipated in the budget.
Garden City homeowner Bob Orosz, a member of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's residential assessment reform team, hired a tax protest firm to get a 12 percent reduction in his assessment this year. But his taxes are still going up because the Garden City school tax rate is increasing 14.3 percent, instead of the 3.54 percent projected.
"My assessment hasn't gone down low enough to offset the tax increase," Orosz said. "Taxpayers think when their assessment goes down so do their taxes. That's not the case."
A comparison of this year's final assessment roll to last year's shows that values went down on nearly 70 percent of the county's 386,000 residential properties. The remaining 30 percent -- about 117,900 residential parcels -- increased or stayed the same.
Records show about 99 percent of the properties in Uniondale and Roosevelt were reduced; just under 98 percent of the homes in Freeport and Westbury dropped in value.
In comparison, assessments were reduced on about 41 percent of the single-family homes in Long Beach, where the tax rate has increased by 11.1 percent instead of the projected 3.7 percent.
In the Valley Stream School District 30, just 29 percent of the homes received assessment reductions. School taxes were projected to increase 1.69 percent but the rate is up 6.6 percent.
Nassau settles challenges
Mangano, who made fixing the assessment system a major focus of his administration, announced in August that for the first time in recent memory the county had reviewed and settled all of this year's 116,410 residential challenges. Mangano last week referred all questions to Assessor Davis.
While those settlements should reduce the amount of tax refunds the county owes -- averaging $20 million a year for residential refunds -- they also lower assessed value throughout the county.
Records show 84.7 percent of homeowners who filed challenges -- about 94,000 throughout Nassau -- won reductions. More than half of the drop in the county's total residential assessed value came from successful homeowner tax challenges.
"We've gotten to the point where the assessments make no sense. The reductions make no sense. The effect on your taxes makes no sense. And the only thing that makes sense is to challenge your assessment," said Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick).