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Nassau's off-kilter clergy tax break can be reformed

Bishop Lionel Harvey, left, pastor of the First

Bishop Lionel Harvey, left, pastor of the First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury and Rabbi Noam Weinberg, principal of North Shore Hebrew Academy High School, right. Credit: Danielle Silverman

For more than a century, New York has provided a $1,500 property-tax exemption for clergy that is of moderate value in most of the state. But in Nassau County, the value of the exemption has grown so tremendously that in many cases, it places an unfair burden on other property owners in school districts and villages. That’s because Nassau has a unique and confusing assessment ratio of 0.10, meaning a $1.5 million home has a taxable value of $1,500. If a clergy member owns a $1.5 million property in Nassau, the entire value is exempt.

The $1,500 exemption from school and municipal taxes is not much now, and it was not a fortune when it was passed. Adjusted for inflation since 1896, $1,500 would be worth about $45,000 today.

But thanks to the ever peculiar Nassau County assessment system, the exemption for clergy-owned residences last year excused them of $11.6 million in school and municipal taxes. That means all the other taxpayers pick up their share, and in communities where high densities of clergy reside, the extra burden on others can be significant.

Religious leaders often toil to help others, and most earn modest incomes. Our society often has used its tax code to determine social policy. A small and partial tax break in an expensive community is warranted. But wealthy religious leaders should not get tax breaks on luxurious homes, and no homeowners should be excused from their taxes entirely.

Nassau County is required to keep its assessment ratio at 0.10 for the next five years while it undoes another mess, the unfair tax shift created by freezing its tax roll for seven years. But once that fix is complete, the county and state should pass laws to allow Nassau to assess property at full market value. That would solve the problem of the clergy exemption and clear up a lot of confusion too.