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Uneven burden of assessments

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola.

The Nassau County Department of Assessment in Mineola. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

In 2000, Nassau County faced a lawsuit claiming its system of assessing property values using a formula based on circa 1938 construction costs caused less wealthy, largely African-American owners to pay an unfairly high proportion of property taxes. The suit was certain to be successful, and two days before the trial Nassau agreed to reassess its 400,000-plus properties and tax them based on fair value.

That tax roll was generated, and a much fairer system was created. But voracious tax-appeal companies continued to convince property owners to grieve at an unusually high rate. And when grievances were successful, the resulting refunds, which the county pays in full even though most of the overpayments go to school districts and other taxing bodies, cost Nassau more than $100 million a year.

The best course was to keep improving the valuation system and defeat the appeals to convince property owners that assessments were fair.

Instead, in 2010, then-County Executive Edward Mangano gave up on assessing property values, instead freezing the roll. Then, to avoid paying those refunds, the county granted the vast majority of appeals for reductions, even when properties weren’t overassessed. This avoided refunds, because the bills were agreed to before overpayments were generated.

The tax-appeal companies, which have made at least $500 million in the past six years, were happy. The politicians, including Mangano, and political clubs that got millions in campaign donations from those companies were happy.

But now the often low-income, often minority property owners who never appealed property values once again pay far more of the tax burden than they should, nearly 50 percent more in some cases. That opens the county up to lawsuits that claim the system is illegal and accusations that it is unconscionable, both of which are fair.

County Executive Laura Curran is trying to fix the system, and says the county will have a solid tax roll by 2019, but that won’t alleviate the unfair burden now. For 2018, Curran says the county must again grant reductions to most of the more than 200,000 property owners who grieve, leading to more overpayments for those who don’t and are often at the lowest rung of the economic ladder. And the county says it has done everything it can to encourage all property owners to appeal.

But it’s not the responsibility of residents to appeal unfair taxes, it’s the responsibility of government to levy fair ones. Those who don’t appeal may be ill, elderly, afraid of the government or otherwise unable.

There is talk of the State Legislature being called back into session to address reproductive rights and New York City’s speed cameras. If that happens, lawmakers must pass a proposed law for Nassau that would create 10 percent tax exemptions for owners of properties worth less than $500,000 who have not grieved since 2010. Even better would be a one-year law entitling all Nassau County owners to the reductions granted en masse to those who appeal, even if they do not grieve.

The current system is inequitable and unfair, and it rankles. If that continues to be the case in 2018, it will be a crying shame. And if it continues to be the case in 2019, it will be inexcusable.

— The editorial board