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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

A hornet’s nest for new Nassau exec

Here’s how the notorious property-tax assessment became a circle of hell.

Property tax files are stored at the Nassau

Property tax files are stored at the Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola in January. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Wednesday morning, either Republican Jack Martins or Democrat Laura Curran will wake up assigned to lead Nassau County’s government. And the task for the winner became even harder than expected last week, because the pesky property reassessment County Executive Edward Mangano has been promising since he took office nearly eight years ago wasn’t done in time to set the tax roll. Again.

Taken together, the fact that the assessment didn’t get done, the people who didn’t get it done, and how the assessment system got this way tell much of the tale of this broken county.

Nassau officials announced Friday that properties will not be reassessed early next year as promised. New valuations would have had to be mailed by Friday to take effect next year, so this was an admission of incompetence, not a change in policy. Mangano froze property values in 2010 as his administration struggled to get a handle on refunds, promising a new roll in 2014. Then, blaming superstorm Sandy for the failure to meet that goal, he set the new deadline that the county blew Friday.

In 2002, Nassau completed a reassessment of properties for the first time since 1938. Over the 64-year interim, the valuations had gotten terribly out of whack with reality. Successful challenges by property owners, combined with the “county guarantee” that requires Nassau to repay overpayments it disbursed to school districts and other municipalities, led the county to borrow more than $1 billion to settle tax appeals by 2002. The reassessment also was forced by a 1997 lawsuit supported by the U.S. Justice Department that showed the system had become sharply discriminatory, overtaxing minority communities and undertaxing wealthier, whiter ones.

For 2018, there will once again be no new assessment. About $1.7 billion in taxes has been shifted in the past six years from those who appealed their taxes to those who didn’t, and once again, many who’ve suffered are the county’s poorer and minority taxpayers.

Firms representing homeowners and commercial property owners in their assessment grievances have made at least $500 million in the past six years. They also have helped design the appeal system that enriched them by granting the vast majority of residential appeals regardless of merit.

And they have banded together via a political action committee to donate $1.8 million to political organizations in the past 10 years, including $330,000 to Mangano’s political campaign and $1.3 million to other GOP committees. Mangano faces federal corruption charges related to county contracts. But in 2015, with Mangano having laid off more than one-third of the 270 Nassau employees who valued property, the county outsourced the new assessment.

At first, the work was awarded to Standard Valuation Services, owned by Matthew L. Smith. Smith, his family and firms he runs have donated more than $542,000 to political candidates since 2006, including at least $340,000 to GOP committees and $133,400 to Mangano’s campaign committee. Standard Valuation Services was the higher of just two bidders by $2 million. But when complaints were made by the other bidder, Michael Haberman Associates, whose owner has donated a paltry $90,000 to political committees and three-quarters of that to Democrats, the two firms split the $3.4 million job.

Nassau County’s governance is incompetent and corrupt. Worse, it is both those things by design, to benefit the powerful. Resistance to change will be fierce, but change must come. To the new county executive: This is your wake-up call.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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