Many Nassau County homeowners received an unwelcome surprise in the mail recently: a tax increase above the level projected when they voted on their school budgets in May.
The increase isn't because of anything the school districts did, but rather because of actions taken by the county. And it's just one more example of the problems with the assessment system. Though there was no change in the tax levy -- the total amount of property taxes collected in any particular district -- the assessed value of property in the districts went down, which necessitated an increase in the tax rate.
The higher bills are a direct result of three county actions: the almost wholesale approval of tax grievances filed this year, the freezing of property assessments, and changes in the method used to allocate how much of the tax levy will come from each tax class, known as the base proportion. Those changes in the base proportion shifted more of the tax burden to residential properties and away from commercial ones, the two major categories. For the county tax levy, about 74 percent is charged to homeowners, and only 17.5 percent is levied for commercial property. Ten years ago, the proportions were 65.5 percent and 25.6 percent, respectively.
So how do we prevent such unwelcome tax-bill surprises in the future?
One problem is that school districts are required to prepare their budgets well before the tax assessment values and base proportion are determined. If instead the assessed values and base proportion that were in effect at the time of the budget vote were used, then the districts would know their true tax rate, and voters would be passing judgment with a better understanding of the tax associated with the budget.
The current assessment process and billing schedule present a second challenge to districts that also results in higher taxes. School districts, unlike the town and county, operate with a fiscal year that begins July 1. Yet the first tax bill for the new school year goes out in October, and payment is due in November. That puts the districts four months into the fiscal year before they get their first tax payment. In many cases, they must borrow to pay bills until the tax receipts come in -- and the expenses associated with borrowing can further increase taxes.
The fiscal year for towns and the county begins in January, and the first tax payments are received that month. So they don't have the same problem. What's more, their tax rate isn't subject to an after-the-fact change, because the assessed values and the base proportion have been finalized before they prepare and approve their budgets.
Moving to a quarterly schedule for all taxes -- with bills sent out the first of January, April, July and October and payments due the 15th of the next month -- would ensure the payment schedule reflects the fiscal year and provides funds in a more timely way for the schools. Such quarterly payments also would make budgeting easier for homeowners. The first payment for town and county taxes would be due in February, and the first for schools would be due in August. That would put all major taxes on the same schedule as their fiscal year, and should end or at least reduce borrowing for school districts.
Finally, the methods used to calculate and fund the refunds for successful grievance cases lead to overpayment, transferring tax obligations to other tax districts and -- most critical, because of how the base proportion works -- transferring the cost of commercial property tax refunds to residential homeowners. Adjustments and refunds for tax levies must be corrected at the tax class level only -- ensuring that the burden of covering successful commercial grievances does not fall on homeowners. That also would enable the county to pay successful tax grievances with tax credits instead of refunds. Using credits within the tax district and class would allow the county to make multiyear settlements of these cases at one time.
The bills we just received are an unwelcome development. Let's make this surprise the last one. It's time to fix taxes in Nassau once and for all.
John E. Brooks of Seaford is a former member of the Seaford school board and a former candidate for the New York State Assembly.