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Assessment phase-in stalled in Nassau County Legislature

A neighborhood of houses in Elmont is seen

A neighborhood of houses in Elmont is seen in this July 1 aerial photo. Credit: Newsday/John Keating

A plan to phase in Nassau County’s reassessment over five years to allow tax hikes to take effect gradually is stalled in the county legislature amid a standoff between majority Republicans and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran.

The State Legislature in April authorized the phase-in of Curran's countywide property reassessment.

But the county legislature must approve a separate local law for the phase-in to take effect.

Majority Republicans say there's no rush to pass the bill. They say they have to explore all the implications of reassessment given prior errors in the program's rollout, including incorrect values on the tentative assessment roll and taxpayer impact statements that later had to be corrected.

But the Curran administration has accused Republicans of stalling in an effort to extend the debate through this fall's legislative elections. Curran, a Democrat, says taxpayers need to know whether the phase-in will be in place before tax bills affected by the reassessment begin going out in October 2020. 

Under the phase-in, dubbed by Curran as the “Taxpayer Protection Plan,” increases or decreases in homeowners' valuations would be applied gradually, in 20 percent annual increments over five years, in order to avoid sudden changes in tax bills.

Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said the Republicans' stance “boils down to one thing: We just want to make sure we have all the information as to how it’s going to work, how it’s going to affect our residents before we pass it. We don’t have that information.”

“Ultimately, I think it’s something that we’re going to support," Nicolello said. "But it’s just a matter of making sure we understand it completely … We can’t just pass something and say we’ll figure out what the impact is going to be later on. That would be irresponsible.”

Curran said in an interview, "I don’t understand why the majority in the legislature is not passing this. It seems to me like they’re playing politics in an election year, and you know, maybe they’re looking to stoke fear and anxiety in a campaign year. I want to make sure our families have time, and the information, so they can plan their budget for the year.”

The reassessment, the first in nearly a decade, will set new values for 386,000 residential properties countywide. Curran says the effort for the first time in years will result in a tax roll that will hold up under legal challenges. 

The administration of former Republican County Executive Edward Mangano froze the tax rolls in 2011. Since then, the county has granted mass settlements to homeowners who challenged their assessments, leaving homeowners who did not challenge  them to shoulder a greater share of the property tax burden.

An Office of Legislative Budget Review report last year found that, under reassessment, 52 percent of homeowners would see tax increases, and 48 percent would see reductions.

Curran proposed the five-year phase-in in September, after she had cut the level of assessment for homes to 0.1 percent. That meant more residents could be assessed closer to full valuation, compared with a reassessment plan she had unveiled months earlier.

Hundreds of county residents packed legislative hearings, with many complaining about the prospect of having to pay sharply higher tax bills immediately.

The dispute over the phase-in legislation has led to a blitz of advertising on social media and in the mails, from both sides.

The county spent $91,518 to mail 465,000 postcards in May — bearing Curran's name, title and the "Taxpayer Protection Plan" seal — urging residents to call on their legislators to pass the phase-in bill, county officials said.

Administration officials said Curran's re-election campaign spent $3,661 on Facebook ads that appeared in May showing Curran meeting with homeowners, along with the message: "It's Time to Pass the Taxpayer Protection Plan."

Three GOP legislators sent letters responding to Curran’s postcard at an average cost of $4,800 for each batch of mailings, GOP legislative spokesman Frank Moroney said.

In a June mailing to constituents, Legis. John Ferretti Jr. (R-Levittown) said a phase-in vote does not have to occur until mid-2020 "in order for the increased tax burden to be phased-in. I will use that time to do everything in my power to bring integrity, fairness, accuracy and transparency to the County Executive’s rushed and flawed reassessment process.”

As lawmakers debate the phase-in legislation, one outstanding issue involves planned tax impact notices that would show precisely how much residents' taxes are expected to rise or fall under reassessment.

Curran promised on April 30 to get updated taxpayer notices out to homeowners, but they have yet to be mailed.

“The bottom line, unfortunately, is that the longer that the administration delays getting us the information that we need, getting the public the information that we need, the longer it’s going to take us to actually take up the proposal that’s been produced by the administration," said Legis. Steve Rhoads (R-Bellmore). 

County Assessor David Moog said the updated tax impact statements will be delivered to homeowners soon. He said county employees needed to factor in changes to the tax roll after the county Assessment Review Commission granted 167,000 reductions to assessment challengers.

Some county lawmakers also have raised doubts about the fairness of a phase-in, noting that homeowners who were overpaying during the eight-year frozen roll would have to wait five years for their assessments to be lowered fully.

“You’ve point blank told them they’ve been paying too much, and now you’re going to make them wait five years to get it right?” said Legis. Rose Marie Walker (R-Hicksville).

Legis. Laura Schaefer (R-Westbury) said, “What about the residents whose taxes are supposed to go down? … How can you say this is a taxpayer protection plan when it’s only protecting half of the people.”

Kay Bromberg, who has owned her home in Roslyn Heights for 35 years, said she was “disappointed, I guess, in the general disregard on the impact for property owners who have been overassessed for so many years, and now will have to subsidize the tax mitigation plan for five more years.”

In calculating the phase-in, the county will determine the difference between a home's valuation in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 tax years and then introduce the difference in 20 percent increments over five years.

However, Ferretti said the county should use final 2020-21 tax values, to be set in April 2020 after tax challenges are decided. Homeowners may win challenges and be valued lower and need to be phased in by a smaller increment in the program's first year.

"A lot of the tentative assessments change after the grievance process. The worry is that the exemptions don’t reflect the actual tax obligation," Ferretti said.

Conal Denion, special counsel with the Nassau County attorney's office, said taxpayers who win grievances might "accelerate faster," but "eventually get to the same place."

Responding to Republican complaints about the phase-in, Jay Jacobs, chairman of the Nassau and state Democratic parties, recalled that over the past year, the GOP expressed concern about proceeding with reassessment because the state had yet to authorize the phase-in.

"We said we were going to do a phase-in, and they [Republicans] said, ' … We're not sure the State Senate or the Assembly will pass it. We can't count on it,'” Jacobs said. 

Now that the phase-in is state law, “it only needs the approval of the [county] legislature, which means these same Republicans, and I think it’s the height of hypocrisy to now be delaying it," Jacobs said. "What’s the reason now?”

Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Cairo accused Democrats of "trying to make it political. Clean up your governmental mistakes, and give us an accurate transparent product, and then we’ll consider it."

Cairo said that “given all the errors and the lack of transparency" in the reassessment process so far, there would be “more errors after more errors being piled on" if legislators were to approve a phase-in without scrutiny.

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