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Nassau GOP's cozy relationship with tax-appeal firms

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola on Oct. 3, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

When Nassau Republican officials discuss the county's property assessment disaster, they neither assign nor accept blame for the frozen and inaccurate tax roll, the unfair shift of at least $1.7 billion in property-tax burden and the obscene profits of tax-appeal firms.

They say it's all very regrettable, it's been a problem for decades, and what's needed is a state bailout, or time to study the problem, or public meetings, or an assessor who is elected and lives in the county.

But the property-tax roll was destroyed intentionally in 2011, by then-Nassau Executive Edward Mangano and the county legislature on the advice of huge tax-appeal firms that openly gave massive political contributions to Republicans who were in power.

Now a Newsday investigation has uncovered more shady contributions from those firms in 2011 to some Republican officeholders , given through a complex structure that may have exceeded campaign limits. The residential tax firms' PAC, the Committee for Fair Property Taxes, was the lone contributor to NVS Victory Fund 2011. That was a campaign account shared by six Republicans: Hempstead Receiver of Taxes Donald Clavin, now running for Hempstead Town supervisor; county Legislators Howard Kopel and Vincent Muscarella; then-Legislators John Ciotti and Joseph Belesi; and then-Hempstead Town Councilman Edward Ambrosino. All six also received money from that PAC in their individual campaign accounts. Those who responded to questions, and a county GOP spokesman, say they've done nothing wrong.

In 2011, Nassau Republicans were fighting to retain their majority in the legislature, which they had seized in 2009 after a decade of Democratic dominance. And the tax-appeal firms had reason to prefer Republicans.

The court-ordered property-tax revaluation completed in 2002 under then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, brought a storm of appeals and huge payouts by Nassau: The county refunds 100 percent of the overpayments of owners who win tax challenges after the final tax rolls are set, but gets only about 16 percent of the money paid in.

Under Suozzi, the tax-appeal firms saw their business model losing profitability as the county fought grievances case by case. But the county also saw its debt skyrocket as appeals granted after rolls were set spurred refunds. The better plan for Mangano would have been to stay the course, fine-tune the values and adjudicate grievances faster.

Instead, Mangano signed an agreement with the county's tax-appeal firms to settle grievances en masse, almost always in favor of their clients. The tax burden shifted toward homeowners who did not grieve, and homeowners who filed their own grievances consistently did worse than those who paid these firms.

Since 2009, 88% of more than $3 million in political contributions linked to Nassau tax-appeal firms has gone to Republicans.

Nassau Republicans have partnered with tax-appeal firms to destroy the assessment system in an alliance that netted the firms $500 million and those Republicans campaign contributions. When campaign-contribution limits hindered that partnership, they skirted them.

And now Republicans are hindering Democratic County Executive Laura Curran's attempts to fix the system, just as they did with Suozzi.