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Nassau County GOP still gets assessment problem wrong

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Aug. 13,

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Aug. 13, 2019 in Baldwin. Credit: Howard Schnapp

For years, as the Nassau County property tax assessment system was degrading into an unfair morass, the Republican majority running the county legislature said nothing. Now, as County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, takes the difficult steps necessary to fix the system, Republicans have passed an Assessment Bill of Rights that would fail to benefit taxpayers, while refusing to approve legislation that could prevent heart-stopping increases.

Reassessment and residents’ fear of it are a central issue in November’s elections, so it’s important to understand the history.

When then-County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, stopped updating assessments in 2011, there was little outcry. Mangano’s reasoning — that freezing assessments would help him adjudicate appeals quickly and save a fortune — was accurate. By settling challenges before tax rolls were set, he avoided the “county guarantee” that forces Nassau to refund to property owners overpayments that actually went into the coffers of school districts and other municipalities.

The change saved at least $20 million annually, but created a massive tax shift. Each year, most property owners who challenged assessments got reductions. Those who did not paid a larger share of the burden. Some got yearly reductions; others, often older and poorer, never challenged their assessments. Tax-appeal firms earned more than $500 million, and donated more than $1 million to GOP campaigns and organizations.

Republican lawmakers never lifted a finger to address the inequity.

But since Curran’s election, Republican legislators, led by Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello, have fought her attempts to restore fairness by reducing taxes on those overpaying and increasing taxes on those underpaying. In the context of the majority party’s inaction, the requests in the Assessment Bill of Rights it passed Sept. 23 are laughable. The bill demands:

  • That Nassau’s assessor live in Nassau (current Assessor David Moog does not), though when Mangano refused for years to appoint a qualified assessor, as required by law, they said nothing.
  • That all calls to the assessment office be answered by live employees, even though at peak times that could require hundreds of workers, and GOP legislators never objected when Mangano cut agency staffing in half.
  • That assessment inspectors cannot review sections of homes not subject to a tax challenge, a rule that would seemingly only protect cheaters.
  • That the assessor’s ability to change Nassau’s level of assessment of homes, the key ingredient in restoring fairness to the system, be limited.
  • That Curran mail out new tax impact notices by Oct. 15, though they’d cost a fortune, are posted online, can’t be prepared in time and would include figures that are still subject to significant changes.
  • That the assessor hold hearings throughout the county, when hearings have already been plentiful.

Curran has said she’ll veto these measures, and Democratic legislators will uphold that veto. If Republican legislators want to protect taxpayers from huge, immediate increases, their best path is to approve Curran’s five-year phase-in of the new system. If they want only to posture and bluster, they’re on the right well-worn track. — The editorial board