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Nassau cites 'trade secrets' in denying assessment formula

The county said the algorithm used to calculate home values was embedded in vendor software licensed by the county and was exempt from disclosure as a "trade secret."

Nassau Executive Laura Curran delivers the State of

Nassau Executive Laura Curran delivers the State of the County Address at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum last Tuesday. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

County Executive Laura Curran, who ran on a promise of open government, should not cite “trade secrets” to deny information about the formula used to develop home values in Nassau’s countywide reassessment, the state’s open government committee said.

Lynbrook homeowner Dennis Duffy requested the committee’s opinion when Nassau denied his request for the computer algorithm used to calculate residential values.

The county said it was embedded in vendor software licensed by the county and was exempt from disclosure as a “trade secret.”

But Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government, said because the algorithm is used to make “important government decisions” — calculating residential property values — “neither the vendor nor the county should be permitted to claim trade secret status.”

The opinion, dated March 13, is advisory. O’Neill said Monday it is, “at the discretion of the county how they want to use the information I provide them.”

A representative for Curran did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Duffy is scheduled to appear at a news conference Tuesday with Republican Hempstead Tax Receiver Don Clavin, a reassessment critic who is running for town supervisor, to discuss the committee’s opinion and his difficulty in getting answers from the county about the new values on his Lynbrook home.

Duffy said Monday that he met with county assessment staff three times to question how they calculated his new assessment. He said they only would tell him “the formula is in the computer,” and advised him to file a grievance.

Duffy wrote to Curran for the formula. He also submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the assessment department, and then appealed assessment’s denial of his request.

Deputy County Attorney Paul Herzfeld, the county’s appeals officer, responded, "The algorithm used to calculate residential property values is embedded in the Prognose software that the county licenses from (Colorado-based) Thimgan & Associates and is the proprietary information of that firm. Therefore the algorithm is exempt from disclosure under FOIL’s trade secret exemption.”

Duffy, who said he has degrees in mathematics and computer software, then went to the state.

“How can anyone tell if the computer is doing it right if they don’t know what the computer is supposed to be doing?” he wrote. “How can the county abandon its responsibility to determine a fair way to assess Nassau properties by handing it off to a consultant … If this is to be the case, anything the government doesn’t want you to know, they can have done by a consultant?”

His ultimate goal, Duffy said, is to encourage Curran to ask the state to eliminate “the root of the problem,” which he said is the county guaranty.

The guaranty, which is part of state law, makes the county responsible for refunding all taxes received by school districts, towns and other agencies because of erroneous assessments.

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