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Brown: Laura Curran works toward legacy on assessment - but will there be a price?

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran shows the executive

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran shows the executive order on property assessment she just signed on Sept. 26, 2018. in Mineola. At left, is County Assessor David Moog. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran could be putting her political future on the line with a move to, over time, finally make county assessments both accurate and fair.

But a fix in assessment will end up raising property taxes for some residents — even as it reduces property taxes for others.

That places Curran in a precarious position since raising property taxes in Nassau — heck, in most municipalities on Long Island — can be akin to raising a lighted match to a political career.

With that, it’s no surprise that Republicans and Democrats in the Nassau County Legislature are easing away from Curran’s plan — and they are not up for re-election until 2019.

And with Election Day 2018 a few weeks away, Republicans and Democrats vying for legislative office in Albany — where Democrats are pushing for State Senate control -- are keeping a safe distance as well.

In a Newsday story last week, a spokesman for majority State Senate Republicans did not respond to a request for comment about Curran's reassessment plan and her call for state legislation to phase in the impact.

A spokesman for Senate Democrats offered up a statement that said, in part: “The assessment system needs to be reformed in a way that will benefit all taxpayers so Long Islanders get the tax relief they deserve . . . tax relief for Long Islanders is a top priority for senate Democrats and we will do whatever is necessary to ease the plague of high property taxes."

It’s a politically smart sentiment.

But assessment systems don’t levy property taxes — school districts, counties, towns, villages, cities, library and other taxing entities, with approval from elected officials, do.

If the idea is to tackle property taxes — at a time when the new U.S. tax plan already impacts Long Islanders by capping federal deductions for some of the highest property taxes in the nation — there are plentiful places, please, to start.

But assessment — a formula that determines a property owner’s portion of already levied taxes — is not one of them.

County residents already are receiving notices with their new assessments. Those assessments are preliminary, and property owners, according to the notices, will have a chance to make their concerns known to Nassau officials before the calculations are applied to tax rolls for 2020-2021.

Even so, there already are a few glitches. For one, if residents want to check their preliminary assessments against those of their neighbors, there's a problem: As of late afternoon Friday, the newer values had not been added to the county's assessment website.

Michael Martino, Curran's spokesman, said updated information would be available soon "through a new system which will provide homeowners with more information than they've ever had, including comparable sales and an explanation of how the county arrived at their market value."

In Nassau, assessments were out-of-whack long before a federal judge ordered the county to change a system that, into the 2000s, based single-family home assessments on 1938 construction costs and 1964 land values.

Before completion of the court-supervised reassessment in 2003, the wildly inaccurate and unfair system shielded some property owners from shouldering their fair share of taxes, with other property owners covering the difference. Things were supposed to get better. But the reassessment effort was complicated by the fact that Nassau had to build an inventory of properties from scratch under a very tight deadline.

Then, about a decade later, came a decision by former Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano to freeze the tax rolls for eight years, while at the same time settling property owner challenges to assessments en masse. That — along with years of encouragement from Nassau’s elected officials to grieve assessments — made the system all the more inaccurate and unfair.

Now comes Curran with a plan for a fix.

Yes, a change in the assessment system, as with the 2003 reassessment, will leave about half of Nassau property owners with a larger tax burden — and roughly half, who unfairly have been picking up the slack, with a smaller one.

But part of the plan is to seek state approval to transition that shift over a five-year period. “It took years for things to get this way,” David Moog, the county’s appointed assessor, said in an interview last week. “It will take years to bring the county out of it.”

When the dust clears, in theory at least, property owners won’t have to fight for assessments the county should have gotten right in the first place.

And that would be quite the legacy for Curran, come what may for her politically. 

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