Majority Republicans in the Nassau County Legislature have filed an "Answer the Phone!" bill to force the assessment department to staff a dedicated phone line with a "live person" to handle residents' queries.
Introduction of the legislation came after Nassau encouraged homeowners on a county web page to email queries to the assessment department.
On a list of "frequently asked questions" dedicated to property reassessment, the response to the question, "Can I call the Department of Assessment with questions?" was that staffing cuts had rendered the department unable to handle all the calls it receives.
"Personnel cuts in the prior administration left the Department unable to dedicate adequate staff to handle a high volume of phone calls," the response said. "The County is currently increasing the staff of the Department of Assessment to ensure an effective and efficient operation of the Department. While this is ongoing, the County has established an email address for questions specifically about the [Taxpayer Protection Plan]. Your questions can be emailed to TPPQuestions@nassaucountyny.gov."
Under the proposed Taxpayer Protection Plan, the county would phase in shifts in the tax burden due to reassessment over a five-year period.
"It is the exact wrong message from a customer service point of view," said Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park). "It's basically telling people it's not really that important for the Department of Assessment to answer your questions. That's exactly the point. What we're in business to do is to serve the residents."
Nicolello continued, "When you're telling them don't bother to call us, just send an email, it sends just the exact wrong message especially with reassessment going on because those people have a lot of questions. They're very concerned with how it affects them. They don't understand, in large part, how their [property] values were determined. Just providing people to answer those questions is vital.”
County Assessor David Moog said it has been difficult to hire civil service employees to fill the jobs because of a "tight labor market."
Moog said about six or seven employees answer the phones. But some have been out on vacation, and some take lunch breaks and calls sometimes go to voicemail. "We return messages on a continuing basis," Moog said.
County officials expressed concern the GOP legislation would mandate minimum staffing levels in the assessment department.
To require that all calls are answered “would be mandating all this extra staff," Moog said. “It’s not uncommon when you get spikes in phone calls to have those phone calls go to voicemail, and we do our best to return those voicemail messages as soon as possible."
Moog said the assessment department is working to add 15 to 20 more employees.
Nassau budgeted 203 positions for the department in 2019 but only 138 were filled as of July 1, a report from the legislature's budget review office said.
The bill does not call for minimum staffing levels but says that between 9 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., the assessment department must have a dedicated phone line staffed by a person to answer questions.
Moog said that "whenever you have peak flow … either you staff appropriately to make sure most calls are taken care of timely … or you have to start contracting services out. I know [County Executive] Laura Curran is not interested in contracting [for] services.”
Mike Santeramo, deputy county executive for government relations & communications,
said the GOP did nothing to fix the assessment roll during the administration of former County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, "and now they’re putting out legislation which scores them quick points in an election."
Nicolello said, "this is actually the opposite of political. This is just a commonsense thing. I don't expect anyone to win or lose an election off of this — you need to have a reasonable customer service system in place."