Taxpayer-funded flyers about Nassau County's reassessment are crowding voters' mailboxes, with Republican officials attacking the program for "mistakes" and "errors," and Democratic County Executive Laura Curran blaming school districts for causing sharp property tax increases.
As the 2021 county executive campaign gets underway — and with the countywide reassessment expected to be a major issue — elected officials from both parties are highlighting the reassessment in a barrage of mailers aimed at influencing voters' opinions on the issue.
"Thousands of Possible Nassau Assessor Tax Errors" reads an insert Hempstead Town Receiver Jeanine Driscoll, a Republican, included with town tax bills last fall. The insert, with a message resembling a computer coding error, cost the town more than $2,000, a spokesman said.
Hempstead Town spent more than $2,000 on this mailer
In February, Jeffrey Pravato, the GOP receiver of taxes in the Town of Oyster Bay, asserted in a mailer that because of reassessment errors, many homeowners had been "forced to OVERPAY their property taxes."
In response to the Republican flyers, Curran recently sent a flyer urging residents to challenge their assessments if they think they are wrong.
In another, Curran blames most tax hikes on rising school district spending.
"More than two-thirds (71%) of all property taxes are VOTED ON DIRECTLY during annual SCHOOL BOARD elections," the flyer asserts.
Nassau County spent $88,000 on this mailer
Each of Curran's mailers cost $88,000, a county spokesman said.
Oyster Bay officials have declined to disclose the cost of their mailers.
Jay Jacobs, state and Nassau County Democratic Party chairman, said Curran was compelled to correct "misinformation" in flyers from Republican-run towns.
"All of the mailers that are coming out of the Town of Oyster Bay and many that have come from Hempstead … are nothing but taxpayer-funded campaign mail that is both untruthful and unnecessary," Jacobs said.
"When misinformation is being sent out by the towns about what the assessment is, … if you don't clear that up you're missing a responsibility of government to let taxpayers know what's actually happening," Jacobs said.
Joseph Cairo, Nassau Republican chairman, defended the Hempstead and Oyster Bay town mailers.
Voters "know what we know, and it's the fact that reassessment, and the Democrats and Laura didn't handle it properly," Cairo said.
"Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes, over and over, and taxes are going up," Cairo asserted.
The proliferation of mailers comes as property owners in Nassau continue to absorb the impact of Curran's countywide reassessment, the first in a decade.
Under reassessment, some 214,000 homeowners, or 65% of the total, are seeing increases in school property tax bills, while 115,000 — 35% — are due reductions, according to county data.
The first school tax bills affected by reassessment began arriving last fall. New bills for county, town and special district taxes went out earlier this year.
Second-half school tax bills were due last Thursday, but without penalty until May 10, and residents have until April 30 to grieve their taxes for the 2022-23 tax year.
The assessment issue already is surfacing in the county executive race.
When the Nassau Republican Committee chose Hempstead Town Councilman Bruce Blakeman to challenge Curran, practically the first issue Blakeman raised was reassessment.
"I am focused on the tax burden on the average person in Nassau," Blakeman said on March 15 in announcing his candidacy. "There is only so much they can take."
Curran ordered the reassessment of all properties in 2018, shortly after taking office.
Curran signed an executive order unfreezing the tax rolls, and GOP and Democratic lawmakers backed her request to borrow to fund contracts with outside property valuation companies.
Approval of those contracts effectively permitted the reassessment of all properties to get underway.
Curran's predecessor, Republican Edward Mangano, had frozen property values in 2011 and instituted a mass settlement program for tax challenges.
Mangano was aiming to create a new assessment system, and also to end property tax challenges that were costing Nassau County millions of dollars each year.
When Curran took office, many homes were undervalued after years of frozen tax rolls and mass settlements. Property owners who did not grieve their assessments were shouldering a higher proportion of the tax burden than residents who had filed challenges and won assessment reductions.
Nassau is responsible for refunds of all property tax overpayments, including on school and town taxes, according to a state law known as the "county guaranty."
Curran has sent three mailers defending her record on reassessment since town Republicans began their attacks. Her mailers have cost a total of $264,000, according to figures provided by a county spokesman.
Concerned about the effect of the GOP mailings, Curran also has set up a hotline staffed by county employees in the Department of Assessment to provide residents with "facts instead of fiction" about reassessment.
When Curran, a former Nassau County legislator from Baldwin, ran for county executive in 2017, she campaigned vocally against abuse of government mailers.
"Let’s stop pretending that distributing useless information in self congratulatory mailers is a critical function of honest government. It’s not," she said during the campaign. "And those that fill up our mailbox know exactly what they’re doing. They know they are campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime."
Curran proposed "clear and unambiguous rules" for content in all mailings, which she said should address issues such as public safety and changes to county policies.
Mailers could not use politicians' photos, and their names could only appear once, she said.
Curran has not proposed legislation and there is no written county policy on the subject.
Curran's name appears twice on one of her mailers, and four times on another.
Curran spokesman Michael Fricchione called Curran's mailers, "necessary notices filled with important and timely public information on everything from applying for COVID-19 recovery loans and accessing virtual grievance workshops to public policy changes and deadline extensions that every taxpayer has the right to know about."
In GOP-run Oyster Bay, where top officials have sent mailers criticizing reassessment, officials have rebuffed requests for tallies of their expenditures on the flyers, although they concede they have used public funds.
Oyster Bay Town officials refuse to disclose how much they spent on mailers like this one
Last fall, Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino mailed a pamphlet touting his administration's "taxpayer protection budget."
A line on the mailer stated: "If your taxes went up, it's because Nassau County's reassessment hiked property taxes for 65% of homeowners."
In his mailer in February arguing that Oyster Bay residents were having to "overpay their property taxes," Pravato accused Curran’s administration of "gross incompetence," and cited Curran's "new reassessment plan and tax hike."
Oyster Bay Town officials refuse to disclose how much they spent on mailers like this one
"They continue to fail taxpayers by distributing error-ridden data," the tax receiver wrote.
In a statement, Pravato defended use of public funds for such mailers.
He said his office, "has been inundated with hundreds of calls from residents outraged over a total lack of responsiveness from the County Department of Assessment and higher taxes caused by assessment shifts, errors and higher county sewer rates."
Pravato continued: "For years, the town has communicated (via mail — similar to county legislators, the County Executive and other town Receiver’s) with residents about pending tax deadlines and has offered free assistance to residents with grieving their property tax assessment."
Asked about Saladino's flyer, Brian Nevin, a town spokesman, said only that the piece, "was sent in bulk, so it costs less than the price of a normal stamp per household."
Newsday has submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the cost of the Oyster Bay mailers.
Hempstead Town officials also defend Driscoll's use of taxpayer money for mailers attacking reassessment.
"Hempstead Town's Receiver provides factual and helpful governmental information to homeowners on issues that directly impact property taxes," town spokesman Greg Blower said. "The Receiver has a responsibility to advise residents on ways in which homeowners can reduce their tax burden through assessment challenges and property tax exemptions."
Driscoll kicked off the mailer war last year when she included 150,000 inserts with tax bills asserting that tax bills for thousands of town residents may have contained errors stemming from reassessment.
Driscoll also sent out inserts last month, along with what the town described as a "corrected tax bill." The inserts argue, "Taxpayers deserve better from the Nassau County Assessor."
The mailers referred to the fact that Nassau sent revised data for 9,000 tax bills after the 2020-21 tax roll was finalized last September.
Such revisions are not "errors," county officials say, but merely changes required after conclusion of judicial proceedings in tax challenge cases.
County officials acknowledge they have sent tax receivers in Hempstead, Oyster Bay and North Hempstead towns revised data to compute new bills because of assessment reductions granted after the roll was set.
Curran's mailers defending her record on reassessment have gone out over the past few weeks.
The first pamphlet stressed that homeowners can challenge their property assessments if they believe they are too high. The piece includes a photo of a home and a stethoscope, with the slogan: "The Prescription for Lower Taxes."
Curran says: "I always have and always will stand with the taxpayer to enforce the right to challenge the value of property."
A second mailer, issued early last month, suggests another avenue for tax relief. It says Nassau "is Temporarily Pausing Property Value Updates for One Year," and depicts a red pause button.
The mailer refers to a decision by the Curran administration to hold home values steady in the 2022-23 tax year.
The administration feared changes were ill-advised because the market was surging as a result of the pandemic-fueled housing boom. Officials say they are waiting for the market to cool off before updating property values further.
The third flyer raised the school tax issue. It features a pie chart showing that 71% of the property tax bill derives from school taxes.
"Nassau County DID NOT RAISE TAXES!" the mail piece proclaims.
In an interview, Blakeman called Curran's statement "patently false," because the county sewer district tax rose for many homeowners this year.
"It boggles my mind that she would write something that was so false and so political," Blakeman said of Curran's assertion that the county hadn't raised taxes.
While the county did not increase property taxes for its five major operating funds, it did increase the sewer tax levy by more than $5 million in 2021, county budget documents show.
That tax has fluctuated in recent years, both during Curran's administration and Mangano's, records show.
Fricchione, the county spokesman, said the sewer fund "fluctuates annually based on the Sewer District’s infrastructure and capital improvement needs, which are not tied to County property taxes."
The Mangano administration, Fricchione said, "was dependent on drawing down reserves in the amount of $76 million, especially in the post-Sandy years of repairs. The Nassau County Sewer and Storm Water Finance Authority, which oversees the district’s finances, routinely receives bipartisan support to fund infrastructure improvement and help expand services. It’s unfortunate that the Sewer District Fund is now being politicized in an election year and its expenses mischaracterized as tax-hikes."
Asked about the Curran mailer's comments about rising school taxes, Bill Heidenreich, Nassau County Council of School Superintendents president, said school property taxes are based on assessed values set by the county.
"The annual tax levy is set by each individual school district and once approved by local residents it is locked in," said Heidenreich, who also is superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District.
"School property taxes are determined by the Nassau County Assessor’s Office based on assessed property values, not local school districts," Heidenreich said.