Our Views: Toss guarantee, fix assessments

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The easiest answer to a Nassau County assessment system that virtually everyone agrees is broken is to elect a county executive in the fall who is committed to fixing it.

From an operational standpoint, fixing the assessment system would not be difficult.

The county could simply commit to reassessing all property in Nassau County every three years as our columnist, Adam Haber, recently suggested.

From a political standpoint, it might not be so easy.

We would expect that any Democrat who receives the nomination to run in the fall would support a plan to regularly reassess all property.

But any Democrat elected county executive would need the approval of the county Legislature, which thanks to gerrymandering should remain in Republican hands short of an earthquake and a plague of locusts.

And the Republican-controlled county Legislature has done little to nothing to fix this mess so far.

They might go along with a Republican county executive who supported reform, but at the moment no Republican has stepped forward to run.

And current Republican county executive, Edward Mangano, has not ruled out a re-election bid — despite a dismal financial record and a federal indictment on political corruption charges. Mangano has even pointed out that the trial for the federal corruption charges will not begin until 2018 — after the election will be held.

In the past, Mangano’s campaigns have received the strong financial backing from one of the big winners of the county’s broken assessment system — law firms and other companies that challenge property tax assessments.

The law firms, which usually receive 40 to 60 percent of the money saved in winning assessment challenges, literally have millions of reasons to continue to support this system.

In fact, rather than announcing sweeping reforms of the failed system following a recent series by Newsday that detailed the assessment system’s dysfunction, the county announced in taxpayer-financed mailings that the deadline to challenge taxes had been extended to March 10, giving taxpayers more time to hire the law firms to challenge their property tax assessments.

Among Newsday’s findings is that most people who challenged their assessments, 75 percent, won, sharing their savings with the law firms.

Since the county spends the same amount of money no matter how many property owners wins tax challenges, those who don’t challenge their assessments or are unsuccessful in their challenges must pick up the difference.

The Newsday series also pointed out that owners of commercial property owners and more expensive residences challenged their assessments at a much higher percentage than owners of less expensive homes.

So once again the little guy gets the short end of the stick.

To be clear, reassessing properties every three years would not eliminate winners and losers. At the end of the day, some property owners would pay less and some would in fact pay more. It would just be a fairer system less susceptible to challenges — and large pay days for tax certiorari firms.

This adds another obstacle in the way of fixing the assessment system.

But we have a solution that would eliminate something that is actually both costly and unfair to Nassau County — the so-called “County Guaranty.”

Under a state law passed at the behest of local politicians in 1948, Nassau County must cover 100 percent of the tax refunds won in tax challenges even though it ultimately only receives 17 percent of the money. The rest of the money collected goes to school districts and other taxing bodies. Nassau is the only county in the state, and perhaps the country, that has this burden.

County politicians, who have blamed the guarantee on the its ongoing financial problems, have sought state legislation to eliminate the county guarantee.

But they have been blocked by the school districts and other taxing bodies who would then be saddled by the refunds, which under the current system could be a considerable expense.

School districts alone account for 60 to 70 percent of the money collected by the county.

Given the poor job the county did in assessing homes, we don’t blame the school districts and others taxing bodies.

On the other hand, the school districts and other taxing bodies are, in effect, being subsidized by the county in way that happens in no other county.

We are also confident that the county would not do such a poor job if the school districts and other taxing bodies would have to shoulder their share of the burden of tax challenges.

This would, of course, require state legislators from Nassau County to show political courage in the face of strong opposition from the school districts and other taxing bodies.

But perhaps the state legislators could make fixing the county assessment part of the deal and even figure out a way to cushion the blow to the school districts.

The deal is there for the taking: eliminate the county guarantee and fix the county assessment system.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Repeal of the County guaranty is the sole solution to the tax assessment problem and the County debt issue. However, no amount of cushioning the tax hit for the school districts will enable that repeal. There are too many hurdles and costs to the districts to be able to sweeten the pot– hiring individual assessors for the districts, attorneys to defend the assessments, etc., all while keeping under the state tax cap. Simply stated, the district voters will never approve such a plan, nor vote for any candidate who would support such a logical plan. Why burden the school taxpayer to bail out a county that hasn’t shown to deserve it?

  2. If it were only that easy it would be done already. The schools and towns cried, went to court, fought to kill it. It is free money for them and should not be left off the hook.

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