County Executive Edward Mangano's plan to end Nassau's 62-year-old guarantee to refund excess taxes collected by school districts and towns because of incorrect assessments drew sharp criticism Thursday.
Some school officials accused Mangano of attempting to illegally shift county costs onto district taxpayers, while two of Nassau's three towns complained that their residents should not pay for the county's assessment mistakes.
Jay L.T. Breakstone, president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, said "the county would laugh" if school boards passed resolutions requiring Nassau to pay their expenses. "The county doesn't have the power to do what it wants to do," he said.
And Bill Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, said he thought the county had been working with the districts to consolidate and cut costs, not redistribute them. No matter what government pays the refunds, he said, "it's the same taxpayer."
As Mangano presented his proposed $2.6-billion budget for 2011 on Wednesday, he said he will propose local legislation to end the guarantee, which could put the schools, towns and special districts on the hook for more than $80 million a year in property tax refunds. He also said he will "order" $60 million in concessions from the county's labor unions, among other measures.
Because any tax refund is not paid until two years after a challenge is filed, Mangano said his plan will not yield savings until 2013, when he believes his other reforms will have fixed the assessment system. Until then, he said, he will borrow $364 million to pay this year's and next's refunds as well as the estimated backlog of pending challenges. On Wednesday, he submitted legislation to the county legislature to borrow $364 million.
Mangano said Thursday he has given the schools and towns a two-year notice. "Over the coming months, I will invite municipalities to join me in having an honest discussion about shedding waste and right-sizing their budgets so they may face little or no impact at all."
He contends a simple majority vote of the county legislature could end the guarantee.
But attorney Maureen Liccione, who represented North Hempstead in a recent a suit that found the county liable for repaying garbage taxes on light poles in the town, said any change requires state approval because the guarantee was enacted by the State Legislature.
"The appellate courts in New York have affirmed the county guarantee time and time and time again," she added.
The recent court decision noted the county agreed to pay all refunds in 1948 - 10 years after it took over assessment from Nassau's towns.
Mike Deery, Hempstead Town spokesman, said, "We don't think it's right to ask Town of Hempstead taxpayers to pay for the county's assessment mistakes. We think the county executive should continue his efforts to fix the broken assessment system rather than place the burden on other municipalities."
Mangano retorted, "I invite the town to conduct its own assessment just as many others across our state do."
Only Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, a fellow Republican, was conciliatory. "During these difficult economic times, everyone is going to have to work together to solve the county's fiscal problems," he said. "We're all residents of the county and if this will help the county get on sound financial footing, we're willing to do our part."