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Nassau County’s assessment-system snake pit

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola on Jan 12, 2017. Taxpayers come to the office with questions about their property taxes. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The Nassau County tax assessment nightmare is increasingly a symbol for how Edward Mangano has run the county. That symbol is a skull and crossbones.

The county lacks the ability to perform a basic function of government, valuing properties accurately to assess taxes. It hasn’t done so since 2010, the year Mangano took the oath as county executive. The promise that a new tax roll would be completed by 2014 was washed away by superstorm Sandy, according to county officials. And a 2015 plan to do so turned out to be toxic.

The county paid $3.4 million to two outside firms to create new assessment rolls, which were due a few weeks ago to be used for 2018 tax bills. It didn’t get done in time, or at least not well enough for the data to be used. And the announcement that the assessment would not be completed is politically suspect, because had the new rolls been delivered on time, notices of big swings in assessments would have hit mailboxes days before the tight election for county executive. Mangano, who is under indictment, did not seek re-election, and voters turned out the GOP, choosing Laura Curran, a Democrat. Curran campaigned on the promise of running a competent assessment department to create an accurate tax roll, and then updating those values every three years.

The firms that represent home and commercial property owners in their assessment grievances largely designed the system Nassau uses to resolve claims. In the first year after a grievance is settled, those companies usually get half the money refunded. They have earned at least $500 million in the past six years. The political action committee the companies jointly fund has donated $330,000 to Mangano’s political campaign in the past 10 years, and another $1.3 million to other GOP committees. This PAC gave token amounts during this year’s campaign to Curran and her GOP opponent, Jack Martins.

A Newsday story last week showed tens of thousands of homeowners get larger assessment reductions automatically every year when they grieve than tens of thousands of others in similar situations. The distinction between winners and losers is made via inexplicable rules that change annually and have not been made public, such as whether a house was ever listed for sale or whether a permit was obtained for a renovation.

The story also illuminated the random and disturbing method by which most reductions have often been granted: Tax appeal firms negotiate a lower assessment rate with the county for those who challenge, shifting a huge portion of the tax burden to those who don’t grieve. The property owners who challenge get lower bills even though the actual value of their real estate often was never assessed. By this process, the burden of $1.7 billion in taxes has shifted to the county’s least savvy taxpayers, the ones who did not grieve their assessments while Mangano was in office.

Incompetence and money in politics have come together to create this disaster, one that includes the property-tax system, but which unfortunately isn’t limited to that system. — The editorial board