Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman. Credit: Barry Sloan

Over the past decade, taking responsibility for the Nassau County assessment system has played like minding an untrained puppy quartered in a carpet showroom.

It will be a mess, and you’ll be blamed, because it’s your fault. Criticism from the peanut gallery will be harsh. The public will be angry and scornful, if the numbers are big enough and the attacks effective enough.

And if the opposition party has the power, and know-how, to make attacks stick.

County Executive Bruce Blakeman took his first assessment hit this month when his administration incorrectly jacked up the school taxes of 842 property owners, including Jeff Gold. Gold, a former Assessment Review Commission commissioner, leads a 35,000-member Facebook group for Nassau tax grievers, and he is an active Democrat. 

When Gold’s school tax bill rose from $16,694 to $27,047, it was certain the overcharges would play like a funnel cake booth at a Keto convention.

The county overcharge happened when assessment increases intended to be spread out over four more years were added simultaneously. The 842 victims deserved value reductions this year because of changes like fires or swimming pool removals. “Human error” meant increases instead.

There is reason for pique. Nassau has to pay the school districts the money it tried to overcharge the 842 taxpayers, estimated at $1.5 million, but cannot collect it from them or adjust tax rates to recapture the lost collections.

The Democratic minority in the county Legislature did everything it could to embarrass Blakeman and his administration over the errors, holding news conferences and laying blame. The political impact, though, was not huge or lasting, because the Democrats don't have the political power needed to turn up the heat and keep it blazing. 

In doing so, they were following the playbook crafted by the Republican legislative majority during Laura Curran’s 2018-2021 term as county executive, albeit with less apparent effect.

Curran came in promising to thaw a system frozen by her Republican predecessor, Edward Mangano, a goal she pursued by assessing properties and defending those assessments against the voracious tax-appeal industry. In the attempt, her administration endured numerous pratfalls, including reneging on promises about assessment ratios and increases, botching notices to taxpayers, and sending a scary robocall about filing exemption paperwork to all 400,000 property owners instead of merely the 3,500 senior residents to whom the exemption applied.

The GOP pounced on each mistake, which took a significant toll on Curran’s administration.

Now the Democrats are trying to cut the Republicans on their own blade, leading to several lessons:

  • Your opponents make mistakes because governance is hard. If you take control, you’re going to make plenty, too.
  • You can hammer mercilessly at every error when the work is their responsibility, but when the tables turn, it’s going to come back at you.

But in Nassau County today, other lessons can also be gleaned from the latest assessment fracas:

  • If, because you're in the minority, you don’t have the power to hold meaningful hearings and pass bills, as Republicans did against Curran, it’s much harder to effectively torture your opponents.
  • Nassau Democrats rarely muster the kind of disciplined, consistent, and ferocious opposition to their foes that is the Nassau GOP’s calling card.

So the Democrats did hoist Republicans on their own assessment petard … but not nearly as high as Republicans regularly ratcheted them in the last go-round.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.