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OpinionEditorial

Assessment mess a state issue

Nassau owes $17M to homeowners who won property

Nassau owes $17M to homeowners who won property tax appeals.  Credit: Barry Sloan

Convoluted state laws governing Nassau County property taxes require the assessment efforts of its county executives to be graded on a curve. That was the case when Thomas Gulotta and Thomas Suozzi ran up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt paying back property owners who won appeals of overpayments to school districts and towns. It was true when Edward Mangano gave up on assessing properties in 2011, freezing valuations and settling most appeals before the roll was set to avoid those "county guarantee" payoffs.

And it's the way to measure the current officeholder. Laura Curran took over in 2018 promising an accurate and defensible roll, produced one, then was battered by a crushing pandemic and a real estate market appreciating at breakneck speed.

Nassau's property tax system is a mess. It has been a mess for 80 years. It will be a mess until state law is amended.

In the meantime, Nassau’s leaders must do the best they can.

Newsday recently reported Nassau owes $17 million to homeowners who won thousands of property tax challenge appeals for the 2020-2021 tax year after first being denied the reductions they sought. The roll was largely accurate, and Curran originally planned to vigorously fight the appeals.

But the pandemic pushed back deadlines for homeowners appealing grievance losses by four months, while the county was still required to set the roll in time to mail bills, making refunds unavoidable.

Now another arcane law, known as "six and 20," will make it impossible to assess properties fairly even if the county nails the values perfectly. That law states the assessed value of a home can’t increase by more than 6% in one year or 20% in five; nearly every property in Nassau is appreciating faster than that, so assessed values will not be proportional to fair market value for years.

Curran's 2020-2021 roll was, experts agree, done well. The average correction for the 7,427 Nassau homeowners who won their cases after tax bills were mailed out in November was 4%, an error which many states deem too small to legally spur a refund.

The lack of an allowable margin of error, and a culture of assessment appeal promoted by firms that profit from the churn of grievances, make change nearly impossible. Other laws contribute to the problem:

  • Appeals can never result in valuation increases, over-incentivizing challenges.
  • The "county guarantee" makes Nassau responsible for overpayments to school districts and municipalities, which keep the extra money.
  • Nassau residents can appeal every year, while many places bar appeals for a period after successful grievances.

Curran must set an accurate tax roll that doesn’t cost millions in refunds. But barring a fix of state laws regarding Nassau’s system, passed by local elected representatives in Albany terrified of taxpayers who wrongly fear they'd lose out via reform, the system will remain broken.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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