The share of Nassau County homeowners who won assessment challenges jumped for a second straight year in 2022-23, despite the massive reassessment of all 385,000 residential properties that aimed to reduce the number of settlements, according to a Newsday analysis of county data.
The analysis shows 167,332 of the 227,341 homeowners who filed challenges this year — 73.6% — won assessment reductions from the county Assessment Review Commission, which decides tax challenges.
In the 2021-22 tax year, 50% (109,606 of 219,780 challengers) won settlements that reduced their tax burden.
In 2020-21, the first year of former Nassau County Executive Laura Curran's countywide reassessment, 25.8% (61,110 of a record 236,372) accepted settlements, records show.
The rising number of settlements highlights the difficulty in meeting a key goal of Curran's reassessment: creating an accurate tax assessment roll that's resistant to challenges.
Reassessment sought to dramatically reduce the number of successful tax grievances, primarily because they boost inequities in the property tax system.
Over time, more of the overall tax burden shifts to those who don't grieve their assessments or lose their challenges.
County officials attribute the stubbornly high number of settlements largely to a 2011 court settlement between the county and law firms that file grievances for homeowners.
Under the agreement, which is in effect through 2026, the firms each year may request an analysis of the accuracy of the assessment roll.
If Nassau and the firms agree there was widespread underassessment when the tentative roll was published — typically in January — the county then must negotiate with the firms to set a lower ratio for use in adjudicating assessment challenges.
In lowering the ratio, the county attempts to give those homeowners the same benefit as property owners who were underassessed.
For the 2022-23 tax year, ARC lowered the ratio from .1% to .09%, county records show.
The lower ratio, which has the effect of reducing the tax burden, encourages more homeowners to accept settlements when they're offered, according to county officials.
ARC Chairman Stephen Bucaria, appointed by Republican County Executive Bruce Blakeman in January, told Newsday the settlement offers help dissuade homeowners from bringing court cases through the Small Claims Assessment Review process.
If homeowners win court cases after the final tax roll is set in the fall, Nassau County must refund all tax overpayments to school districts, the county, towns and other jurisdictions.
Last year, Nassau owed $17.2 million in refunds to homeowners. The tally is expected to be about $13.7 million this year, county officials say.
Bucaria said settlement offers "resulted in more meaningful reductions being offered, and therefore taken, and therefore [removing] the possibility of going to SCAR."
"It's a lot more fair and equitable," said Bucaria, a former state Supreme Court justice.
But Nassau County Legis. Debra Mulé (D-Freeport) said the rising number of successful challenges represents a worrisome trend.
"We know what this means; it means we're going back to an inaccurate tax roll," Mulé told Newsday.
"The county spent all that money on getting an accurate tax roll," said Mulé, referring to reassessment.
"And of course the more settlements you do, the more out of whack the roll becomes," Mulé said. "It's a shame, because we're going back to the days when only people who grieved their taxes have a fair value — and not necessarily a fair value if [county officials] are doing mass settlements."
The new data obtained by Newsday shows the rate of successful challenges is approaching the previous high in 2017-18, when ARC granted 83% of assessment challenges during the period when former County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, froze assessment rolls.
During the freeze period, from 2012-13 through 2019-20, Nassau County settled 1,003,434 of 1,252,099 challenges filed, or 80%.
Barry Manson and his partner, Diana Gorin, both of North Hills, are among the thousands of Nassau homeowners who are grieving their taxes this year.
Manson's 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment at the North Hills Ritz Carlton was assessed at $424,770 for 2022-23, county records show.
Gorin's two-bedroom, 2,300-square-foot unit in the development was assessed at $641,600 in 2022-23.
Manson said taxes on the properties should be lower based on real estate comparables. He said he, Gorin and others at the complex are awaiting decisions from ARC about their assessment challenges.
Challenging the assessment “is the only alternative you have,” said Manson, a real estate attorney.
“It’s a game. When I lived in Old Westbury for 30 years, I literally challenged my assessment every year,” Manson said.
“It’s basically like the lottery — if you don't play you can't win,” he said.
Larry Clark, director of strategic initiatives for the nonprofit International Association of Assessing Officers, based in Kansas City, Missouri, suggested Nassau's reassessment should have caused the number of successful tax grievances to decline.
Spikes in tax challenges are common immediately after a reassessment, Clark told Newsday.
"But then in subsequent years the corrections have been made — it leaves fewer and fewer reasons to appeal," he said.
If settlements continue to climb, Clark said, “as a general rule, it means one of two things: Either the appraiser is not doing a good job of valuing the property, or you have an overzealous appeal board, or a combination of the two.”
Laureen Harris, a veteran tax appeals attorney who handles commercial and residential cases in Nassau, attributed the rise in settlements to an increase in the number Assessment Review Commission staff under Curran.
“My observation is that they embarked on a really aggressive mediation and settlement program, and I can tell you just talking to my various colleagues, their goal was to have very few that go to small claims hearings," Harris told Newsday.
Harris said county officials should be wary of the large number of successful tax challenges.
"The concern is you're reassessing by challenge, essentially," said Harris, who is based in Uniondale.
Those who don't file assessment grievances "bear the burden," Harris said.