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Steps toward property-tax sanity

Lee Kyriacou is former executive director of the New York State Office of Real Property Services.

Nassau County taxpayers, you deserve better.

The tax assessment system is broken. To take just the two most recent (and unrelated) examples: Ted Jankowski was removed as Nassau's assessor. And school tax bills have come out hitting many properties with big tax swings.

How does a fed-up taxpayer make sense of all this?

You deserve a simple explanation of how your property taxes are calculated and why they're so high. Only two numbers count when determining your property taxes: 1. your property's assessed value and 2. the sum of the tax rates imposed on your property by multiple overlapping taxing jurisdictions. But these numbers and the way they are determined are far from easy to understand.

Your property's assessed value should be an objective number determined by a professional assessor, and not by inexpert politicians or self-interested tax representatives or lawyers. Every property should be assessed at or near market value. That's the professional standard and - more important - it's the easiest value for homeowners to comprehend.

By contrast, homes in Nassau, on average, are valued at ¼ of 1 percent of market value - that is, a million-dollar home is on the books for $2,500 - which completely confuses homeowners and keeps the tax experts and lawyers who represent them during grievances in business. Nassau has by far the most litigious assessment process in the state, with a one-of-a-kind grievance process that invites never-ending disputes. You deserve a professional, nonpolitical, non-litigious assessment process where all properties are regularly and fairly valued.

On this front, Nassau had started down the right path by eliminating the elected assessor's job and hiring a professional to review and recommend how to fix Nassau's broken system. The county should look to Massachusetts for a good model: Assess at market value, keep values up to date (especially in a down market), and have a review process that encourages rapid and fair resolution.

In Nassau, the second number - the sum total of the tax rates imposed on your property - can reflect taxes by up to 19 separate taxing jurisdictions. All those charges add up to Nassau County having the second-highest property taxes in the state, which, if you exclude New York City, are the highest property taxes in the country.

There are two fundamental problems here: There are some 10,000 overlapping local governments in New York State with duplicate services, unnecessary overhead and ineffective accountability, and there's no limit on the tax each jurisdiction can impose. There are also two fundamental solutions: Dramatically reduce the number of local taxing jurisdictions statewide, and - as both the current and the incoming governor have proposed - put a reasonable cap on the property tax.

Again, look to Massachusetts: A generation ago, that state put in a 2.5 percent cap on property tax increases (along with a process to override it when needed). Now Massachusetts is moving toward single local taxing jurisdictions - consolidating services to hold only one elected body accountable for the total property tax bill.

I have offered the same advice to Nassau County's current and former administrations, which I gave to hundreds of assessing units that I've visited across New York State: Assess at market value, make it understandable to taxpayers, update regularly and make the dispute process easy enough for almost all taxpayers to go through without lawyers.

Those steps will fix the first number - your property's assessed value. Then we can work on the second - New York State's sky-high property taxes - by consolidating most taxing jurisdictions and capping the property tax.