Fixing Nassau County’s assessment system is a brutal task, politically and operationally. And county officials just botched a proposed solution, trying to get state legislators to clean up Nassau’s mess by changing the county’s property-tax laws late in state budget talks without public debate or support from local officials.
That doesn’t mean the changes county officials sought aren’t wise. Creating a margin of error of 5 percent before assessments can generate refunds, and using a line-item tax collected from property owners each year, divided by property tax class, to pay refunds, would be improvements. But an Albany Hail Mary was never going to succeed. We can understand what a heavy lift that would be when many elected officials in Nassau prefer publicity stunts to terrify residents about any change without offering any meaningful ideas of their own.
Since the property-tax roll was frozen in 2011, the county has not had accurate valuations for its 420,000 properties. The policy adopted by then-County Executive Edward Mangano to settle the vast majority of property-tax challenges in favor of the owners and the tax-appeal firms without a fight made the values even more inaccurate. The county’s assessment department is decimated. And this disastrous system costs Nassau as much as $100 million in tax refunds a year on all the money it collects, only 16 percent of which goes to the county. The rest goes to school and other taxing districts and municipalities, which pay no refunds.
The only answer is to build an accurate roll, set taxes based on those values, and fight challenges. That’s largely what County Executive Laura Curran set out to do, but she was blocked from adopting the fairest solution. Assigning the most accurate possible values immediately, while fair, might cause extreme hikes in the bills of owners who appealed annually. To get the county legislature to fund the creation of a roll by outside firms, Curran had to promise no assessments would increase more than 6 percent in any year or 20 percent in five years. If that policy, which is also a state law, holds, it would mean property owners who pay more than their fair share because they have not appealed will continue to pay more than their fair share for years.
That “6 and 20” policy might not withstand a legal challenge. And it shouldn’t. The taxpayers who will be overcharged because of it are disproportionately low-income earners and minorities. And no one should spend years paying more or less than their fair share.
The big beneficiaries of the status quo are the big tax-appeal firms, which have made more than $500 million since the roll was frozen. They want to keep the current system because they can get paid for challenging even the tiniest assessment discrepancies. And they’ve made millions of dollars in political contributions to keep the system in place.
The county needs a competent assessment system. It needs the State Legislature to pass better tax laws, but it will need to get some allies first. Local politicians who burn and shred proposed laws should stop pandering and help.
It’s hard to fix a broken system properly. But that’s the responsibility you get when you run for and win the job of fixing a broken system.