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Republicans, Democrats spar over Nassau reassessment as election nears

Nassau GOP Chairman Joseph Cairo speaks at a

Nassau GOP Chairman Joseph Cairo speaks at a rally on Oct. 16 in Elmont, Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs on Feb. 13 in Garden City. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau Republicans are using Democratic County Executive Laura Curran's countywide property reassessment as a key weapon as they seek to preserve their majority in the County Legislature and win back control of Hempstead Town on Tuesday.

“We believe reassessment is a key issue,” Nassau Republican Chairman Joseph Cairo said. “I would say 65 to 70 percent of the people equate that to raising taxes. People don’t want it.”

Democrats have said little about reassessment during the campaign; instead, they've tried to tie Republican candidates to past corruption scandals involving former GOP officials.

When Democrats have spoken about reassessment, they have sought to blame past county GOP administrations for allowing the county assessment system to get out of control.

“The problem with assessment — even they admit — it was messed up and corrupted under their watch," Jay Jacobs, chairman of the Nassau and state Democratic parties, said of Republicans.

Jacobs said voters are "more attuned to and sickened by the pervasive culture of corruption, the pay-to-play environment that Nassau politics is known for." 

Of reassessment, he said: "We're not emphasizing it. We're running on corruption."

Nassau Republicans who are plying the reassessment issue still are smarting after loss of the county executive's post in 2017 and the defeats of three GOP state senators from Nassau in 2018, when Democrats gained a majority in the chamber.

Curran reassessed all county properties last year after a nearly decadelong freeze in values. The freeze and mass granting of reductions to those who used property tax grievance firms led to widespread inaccuracies in the roll. Those who did not grieve their taxes carried a disproportionately higher share of the tax burden.

County Republican lawmakers, who approved the original contracts to begin the reassessment, have repeatedly attacked the rollout of the program.

They have dubbed it "error-riddled," called for Assessor David Moog's resignation and introduced legislation to require the county assessor to live in Nassau and for the assessment department to have live operators available to answer residents' telephone calls. Curran vetoed the bills and Democratic lawmakers voted to sustain the veto, killing the measures.

Curran has called such measures an intrusion on her authority. She says lawmakers should pass a bill she introduced April 30 to phase in changes in the tax burden due to reassessment over five years — instead of filing a "flurry of useless legislation having to do with assessment, and completely ignore the one thing that can actually help people."

Curran and many other Democrats argue that the reassessment is accurate and fair, and accuse Republicans of fear-mongering to win votes.

In Hempstead Town, Republican Receiver of Taxes Donald Clavin is trying to make an issue of the county reassessment in his campaign to unseat Democratic Supervisor Laura Gillen, who won the seat two years ago.

Over the past year-and-a-half, Clavin has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of Curran’s reassessment.

Town tax receivers collect the taxes, but play no official role in setting countywide assessments.

But during a recent reassessment hearing in the County Legislature, Presiding Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) praised Clavin for mailing copies of online tax impact notices to residents. County officials had opposed a mailing of 385,000 notices to property owners, because of the $240,000 cost.

Cairo said it was natural for Clavin to talk about the county reassessment.

“He’s the tax receiver — he understands the assessment system probably better than most people," Cairo said. “People are fed up with high taxes. … They see it all as one package.”

Jacobs called Clavin’s use of the reassessment debate “opportunism.” He said Clavin “is trying to find something to create a controversy that will carry him to office, and unfortunately the controversy that he has grasped onto is the assessment mess that his own party created. So it’s fundamentally flawed, and I think voters get that.”

Nassau Republicans also are working furiously to preserve their three-seat majority on the County Legislature. Losing two seats would give Democrats the majority in the 19-member body.

Democrats have poured most of their resources into defeating Legis. C. William Gaylor III (R-Lynbrook) in the Sixth District, and Legis. Steve Rhoads (R-Bellmore) in the 19th. Democrats lost control of the County Legislature after the 2009 elections.

Rhoads' Democratic opponent is Jill Levine, who with her husband formed a foundation named after their son Robbie, who died in 2005 after his heart stopped while running the bases at a Little League practice.

Democrats have flooded voters with mailers attacking Rhoads as “Rubber Stamp Rhoads” in an effort to tie him to former County Executive Edward Mangano, who is awaiting sentencing on federal corruption charges, along with his wife Linda.  

Said Rhoads: “The things for which the prior county executive was convicted are things that occurred before I became a legislator.”

He continued, “I have not been bashful about speaking out [against] both administrations when they’ve made mistakes.”

In the Sixth District, Democrats are running Laura Burns, of Rockville Centre, a young adult author and grassroots advocate for gun control, against Gaylor. 

One Democratic ad titled “Gun Shop Gaylor,” superimposes Gaylor’s face over a man in a gun shop holding cash. Democrats have attacked Gaylor for his previous legal work on behalf of a developer of a proposed "gun spa" — a combination shooting range and beauty parlor — that sought a zoning variance from Lynbrook Village.

“I know who I’m running against. I’m not running against an opponent. I’m running against the party,” Gaylor said. 

State party leaders say they are watching the races in Nassau closely.

Nick Langworthy, state Republican Party chairman since July, said, “As goes Hempstead, so goes the State of New York."

Langworthy called Nassau "very important, especially if we ever want to win statewide offices again. It’s important we have strong Republican leadership in public office in Nassau County.” 

But Jacobs said if Democrats win the County Legislature, "I think for the most part it's over" for Republicans.

"The fact that we are so close in Nassau to ending the reign of this Republican machine has to be frightening to the leaders at Post Avenue,” said Jacobs, referring to the location of Nassau GOP headquarters.

Cairo said Jacobs was engaging in wishful thinking.

“On the ropes? No. I think we’re surging ahead,” Cairo said.

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