40° Good Morning
40° Good Morning

Elected assessor an unwise idea in Nassau County

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola.

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola. Credit: Barry Sloan

Nassau County had a miserably dysfunctional assessment system for most of the time it was run by elected assessors, a selection method that ended in 2008 with a county referendum to move to an appointive position. It also has had a miserably dysfunctional assessment system for most of the time since the change. However, under either system, it’s not the selection method that’s been the biggest problem.

The Newsday editorial board supported the move to an appointed assessor in 2008. And it opposes legislation filed this week by the Republican majority in the Nassau County Legislature to again make the job an elected position.

When Nassau County still had an elected assessor, it was the only county in New York that did. The vast majority of assessors in cities, towns and villages in the state are appointed by the elected executives of those municipalities, for good reason. A good assessor is frequently the bearer of news taxpayers don’t want to hear. An assessor who has to win every few years at the ballot box might sacrifice best practices for unwise but popular ones.

That is what happened in Nassau County from 1938 to 2000, when the county never reassessed properties. Political pressure made elected assessors shy away from updating values. The frozen roll led to dramatic inequities. A lawsuit was filed that laid out how minority and low-income homeowners were disenfranchised by the system. And a federal consent decree required that the county create a fair and accurate tax roll.

But to be fair, something very similar happened from 2011 until last year, while the system called for an appointed assessor. Political pressure made County Executive Edward Mangano shy away from updating values. Having never appointed a qualified candidate, Mangano ordered his interim assessor to freeze the rolls.

Once again a lawsuit has been filed that alleges that about half the county’s homeowners, a disproportionate percentage of them minority and low-income, have been disenfranchised. The property tax freeze caused a shift of $1.7 billion in property taxes from owners who regularly grieved their assessments to those who did not. And the tax-appeal companies that are heavy political donors, particularly to Republican candidates and causes, made at least $500 million helping taxpayers navigate a system that had been broken, by Mangano, on purpose, again, while the Republican majority in the county legislature did little.

Democrat Laura Curran ran for county executive promising to fix this disaster, and she is trying to. The process has not been perfect, and there have been missteps, but that is not surprising with a department and a tax roll ravaged by Mangano’s freeze and layoffs. As the reassessment moves forward, the county must do a better job of answering taxpayer concerns and explaining the process.

But Republican legislators have tried tirelessly to slow or stop the move to fair assessments. Now they are demanding a change back to an elected assessor — not because Curran and her appointed assessor, David Moog, refuse to fix the system, but because they are fighting so hard to make it right. And that’s just wrong. — The editorial board