We will acknowledge that expecting reasoned discourse about property taxes in Nassau during county election campaigns may be asking for too much.
But the level of disinformation this past election year – whether based on political cynicism or just plain ignorance – is hard to ignore. Especially since it makes addressing real problems, such as the high cost of living in Nassau County, that much more difficult.
Let’s start with the “soaring taxes” cited by virtually every Republican candidate running for county office.
It is true that for as many as two-thirds of county residents the amount they are paying in property taxes has gone up and will continue to rise for the next three years.
But it is also true that more than one-third of county residents are paying less in taxes. And what they pay will go down over the next several years.
For some not-so-strange reason, Republican candidates failed to mention the people who saw their taxes go down or that the county tax rate has stayed the same.
So why the large swing in what people are paying in taxes?
The reason is simple: The people who are now paying more in taxes were underpaying their taxes for the past eight years. And the people who are paying less in taxes were overpaying their taxes.
In the process, the people overpaying their taxes were subsidizing those who were underpaying their taxes. Which for those who have been underpaying their taxes was a good thing while it lasted. At least for them.
How do we know this?
County Executive Laura Curran reassessed all commercial and residential properties to find out what they were actually worth – at least within what are considered acceptable margins of error.
The reason for the expected increases and decreases in property taxes over the next three years is that the county, citing “sticker shock” to those facing higher taxes, is phasing in changes over five years.
Which is to say that the county’s assessment system was so out of whack, and the political blowback so great, that immediately charging people what they actually owed was deemed unacceptable by both Republicans and Democrats.
How did the county property tax system become such a mess?
In eight years under County Executive Edward Mangano, no reassessment was done and people were encouraged to grieve their taxes by both Democrats and Republicans, causing county assessments to get further and further out of balance.
Those who did grieve their taxes – generally older, whiter and more affluent residents – won and saw their assessments go down. This resulted in lower taxes.
Those who didn’t grieve their taxes – generally younger, darker and less affluent – saw their taxes go up.
An analysis by Newsday found that under the Mangano administration those who challenged their assessments benefited from a shift in the tax burden that reached $2.7 billion vs. those who didn’t.
So now county property owners will actually know how much government here actually costs.
This brings us to affordability.
One problem with affordability is property taxes themselves. They are based on the value of a person’s home – not a person’s ability to pay.
There is a form of taxation that is based on someone’s ability to pay. It is called an income tax. And it is used at least in part by the federal government, the state of New York and – locally – New York City.
But no one is talking about a county income tax in Nassau County, even though they should.
So for those who have seen their income go down, there is a problem in a county where property taxes are the second highest in the state.
President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress increased the costs of Nassau County residents by capping the federal deduction of state and local taxes at $10,000 – a number that does not come close to what many Nassau residents pay.
The repeal or modification of SALT is a topic of hot discussion in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better’s plan but no decision has been made.
North Shore schools have been rated among the very best in New York state, the county has been voted the safest in the country two years in a row and governments in Nassau in general offer high levels of service.
This has helped residents see large gains in the value of their homes, especially during the pandemic when less dense living has gained in popularity.
But maintaining such high levels of service costs money, lots of money.
Property taxes, which are the primary source of revenues for towns and counties, account for 43 percent of the money raised by government in New York, according to a study by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
The county accounts for about 16 percent of the property tax burden and towns about 11 percent, the study shows.
By far the largest share of property taxes goes to school districts, which account for nearly 67 percent of the total.
But no one on the campaign trail was talking about the cost of paying for the 56 school districts in Nassau County. Or why Nassau needs 56 school districts for 200,000 students when New York City needs just one school district for 1.1 million students.
School budgets are decided directly by voters, but despite the complaints about high taxes the budgets get virtually universal approval every year.
But if you are a homeowner without school-age children who is not taking advantage of districts that spend upwards of S36,000 per student, then living in Nassau may not seem such a great deal.
What about county government?
Nassau County has struggled for 20 years to balance its budgets, often relying on gimmicks and bailouts.
In part, this was a result of the so-called county guaranty, which makes Nassau responsible for all tax refunds – even those that covered schools. This was made even more costly by the county’s dysfunctional assessment system.
The county balanced its 2021 budget based on the restructuring of county debt by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which provided $400 million in financial relief.
NIFA, you may recall, is the state agency created in 2000 to oversee Nassau’s finances after the county went hat in hand to the state Legislature to get a bailout.
In agreeing to refinance Nassau’s debt, NIFA officials recently complained the county still did not have a plan for budget cuts and ways to grow revenue.
But this year, during her re-election campaign, Curran submitted a $3.5 billion budget that included $70 million in property cuts in 2022 with plans for more in coming years.
County Republicans then approved amendments that would cut $100 million in nuisance fees passed 10 years ago by the GOP to fill a budget hole without raising taxes. But NIFA said the cut in fees put the budget out of balance and in a party-line vote Democratic legislators rejected them.
There are a number of ways the county could raise revenues. These include aiding the growth of business and a variety of creative solutions suggested previously.
It could also encourage an increase in housing, though many residents complain this could spoil Nassau’s suburban feel.
This is yet another reminder that it is much easier to blame the cost of living in Nassau on reassessment than make the sometimes hard choices needed to raise revenues or cut expenses.