In moving to create an accurate and defensible tax roll of Nassau properties, County Executive Laura Curran is setting off on a very difficult road. But it’s the only reasonable path she can tread.
The county has a responsibility to competently assess properties and collect taxes. Simply giving up on the responsibility, as the previous administration did, has not worked.
Curran came into office six weeks ago knowing the assessment system would be her biggest challenge. Unlike most counties, Nassau collects taxes for its school and other taxing districts, and most of its municipalities, based on its valuation of more than 420,000 properties. About 16 percent of the money collected goes to the county, but Nassau must pay 100 percent of a refund when a taxpayer wins an appeal.
That law and a property-tax roll frozen since 2011 that no longer bears any relationship to current values, along with savvy and politically active tax-appeal companies, have driven the county to a fiscal cliff. Each year, more than $125 million in county money goes to pay debt and interest from those refunds. And there is a backlog of $400 million in successful assessment challenges that has yet to be paid.
Former County Executive Edward Mangano gave up on conducting accurate assessments and defending them seven years ago, choosing to settle most residential challenges before final tax rolls were set by letting most challengers win. That saved money on refunds, but it also funneled more than $500 million in profits to tax-appeal firms, whose clients fared much better than taxpayers who handled their own appeals. And it made the system outrageously unfair. Owners who did not challenge saw their bills rise 35 percent over six years, while the bills of those who did challenge rose an average of 5 percent, according to Newsday reporting.
Mangano also cut the Department of Assessment from 208 employees to 111, so Curran doesn’t have a lot of resources to fix the system. But she says valuation work from outside contractors, help from the state’s Office of Real Property Tax Services, better use of Nassau’s computer system, and a more consumer friendly assessor’s office could enable the county to release a tax roll it could stand behind by Jan. 1, 2019.
These are key ingredients to fix this mess. But Curran will also need patience from property owners who will have to accept fair valuations as a necessity even if it increases their tax bills. She’ll need cooperation from the courts and an Assessment Review Commission that acts as a tribunal, not a second assessor. She’ll need the tax-grievance firms, which have donated millions of dollars to politicians’ campaigns, to adopt the business practice of accepting accurate assessments. And Nassau, along with every assessing entity in New York, needs state laws that discourage frivolous appeals by allowing values to be raised as well as lowered, and which grant refunds only when assessments miss the mark by more than 5 or 10 percent. The current system benefits the tax-grievance companies while burdening taxpayers. The solutions, in the long run, will benefit all county taxpayers. Everyone involved needs to understand that and help smooth Curran’s rough path.