Editorial: Nassau’s never-ending assessment mess

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Editorial: Nassau’s never-ending assessment mess

A simple explanation for Nassau’s handling of property assessments is that county officials are trying to discredit their use in raising revenue to pay for local governments.

Another explanation is that Nassau County officials are just inept in handling this basic function of government.

Support for these theories can be found in a newspaper report that Nassau County has frozen residential property values for the second year in a row. These are the values that determine what you will pay in your taxes.

To put this in perspective, imagine if the state and federal governments announced that they were freezing income taxes because of fluctuations in income over two years. What would that do to the public’s faith in the system?

In what might be considered bizarre in any other county than Nassau, the decision to freeze property tax assessments at their current levels for the upcoming 2023-24 tax year was made by former County Executive Laura Curran shortly before she left office last month without any public announcement.

Freezing taxes for one year let alone two affects virtually every single property owner in Nassau County. You would think that the outgoing county executive would at least issue a press release or send us an email.

When Curran froze assessments for the 2022-23 tax year in December, she described the move as temporary until the heated housing market settled down after the pandemic.

“We’ve seen these double-digit increases in the communities and bidding wars with all the people moving from the city to the suburbs,” Curran said at the time. “It’s great news for homeowners, but this dramatic increase in sale prices is going to unfairly skew property assessments.”

Exactly how is taxing people based on the actual value of their property unfair? Like them or not, isn’t that the basis of property taxes?

Curran has so far declined to comment on the latest freeze.

Of course, at the time of the first freeze Curran was running and expected to win re-election.

Now she has lost her re-election bid against Bruce Blakeman and says she has no plans to run for office again. Her explanation is that she does not have the fire in her belly. Unsaid is what’s going on in her head.

Real estate experts cautioned that following Curran’s latest freezing of values, the county could face difficulty in the future in calculating accurate assessments.

“I think the other side of this boom is not a correction — it’s plateauing,” said Jonathan Miller, the CEO of a Manhattan-based property appraisal firm.”I’m not too sure in a year or two it’s going to look that much different other than perhaps higher prices, a little bit more inventory and fairly heavy sales”

Paul Dyckes, a real estate appraiser based in Huntington who values properties in Nassau and Suffolk, said with the new freeze, Nassau risks moving “further away from actual market values.”

“If you want to freeze” assessments at January 2020 levels” and the market’s gone up 23 percent since, there’s quite a gap,” Dyckes said.

And where have we heard that before? Oh right, Nassau County.

This was a large turnabout for Curran.

She ran for county executive in 2017, pledging to fix the dysfunctional assessment system run under County Executive Ed Mangano, a Republican, starting with a revaluation of every property in Nassau.

Nassau failed to reassess property values for the entire eight years of his administration.

In not conducting reassessments, Mangano initially cited the impact of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 on, you guessed it, property values.

Mangano also never appointed a certified assessor and presided over an exodus from the assessor’s office.

According to a Newsday report, $2.7 billion in property taxes was shifted over the eight years in which no reassessment was done from people who challenged their property taxes to those who didn’t.

The people who hadn’t challenged their property taxes – generally younger, less affluent and more likely to be members of a minority group – were assessed at a level 29.2 percent greater than those who did.

The widespread and usually successful challenges to property taxes was particularly problematic for Nassau.

Under the infamous “county guarantee” approved decades ago, Nassau was to pay refunds for all local governments, including school districts, even though the county received only about 16 percent of the overpayment.

This cost Nassau tens of millions of dollars a year.

Meanwhile, legislators of both parties curried favor with taxpayers by holding workshops on how to challenge their property taxes and Republicans, in particular, reaped millions in campaign contributions from firms hired to challenge assessments.

Curran kept her campaign promise and reassessed all the properties in Nassau County.

The new assessments, while not perfect, were found to be within every major professional standard of “accuracy and fairness.”

But this did not sit well with county Republicans and the more than 50 percent of property tax owners who had been, in effect, underpaying their taxes for eight years at the expense of those who didn’t challenge their assessments.

Republican legislators pointed to several miscues made in the rollout of the county’s reassessment system in calling for the referendum and the removal of County Assessor David Moog, a certified assessor appointed by Curran.

Never mind that Republican legislators offered no criticism during the eight years of dysfunction under Mangano.

Curran joined Republicans in seeking to soften the blow to property taxpayers who had been underpaying their taxes by phasing in the changes in reassessment over five years.

This, of course, meant that property owners who had made up for the underassessment of others by overpaying their taxes would continue to overpay their taxes for five years, but by declining amounts.

In a show of bipartisan support, Democrats in the state Legislature sought to join this effort of comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted by finding money to offset the increase in taxes faced by those who were underpaying their taxes.

Nothing was said for those who had been overpaying their taxes during this time – and now.

For some reason, legislators outside Nassau didn’t think it was such a great idea to bail out property tax owners in one of the richest counties in New York from paying their fair share of taxes and the county itself for its ineptitude. Again.

Nassau County Legislator Richard Nicolello, a Republican who has since advanced to presiding officer, said at the time that the phase-in was needed to protect homeowners who had been underpaying their taxes from the sticker shock of paying their fair amount. Many, he said, would be forced to leave the county.

Nicolello has yet to explain what happened to the property tax owners who had been overpaying their taxes for the previous eight years. Or continue to overpay their taxes now.

But Nicolello, to his credit, expressed concern about the recent freezes along with the spike in successful tax challenges in the 2021-22 tax year, the year after Curran’s countywide reassessment program took effect. I

In a statement, Nicolello said the freeze and surging settlement numbers “will perpetuate tax shifts and inequity.”

He said the GOP majority plans to work with the Blakeman administration “to reform the Department of Assessment and its policies.”

Blakeman said during the campaign he would undo the reassessment done by Curran.

Since being re-elected he has said Nassau Comptroller Elaine Phillips, a Republican, will audit the Curran administration’s handling of reassessment. Neither has offered a specific fix or policy proposal.

Tom Suozzi, who preceded Mangano as county executive and has since gone on to win a seat in Congress and is now running for governor, said when he left office in 2009 the county was capable of reassessing properties every year.

That sounds like a standard that Blakeman and Phillips should aspire to for at least a portion of Nassau’s property taxes.

A better solution would be to follow New York City and seek a county income tax modeled on state and federal income taxes to pay for at least a portion of the county tax burden.

Income taxes have their own problems but unlike property taxes that are at least based on a person’s ability to pay.

We would like to think that Blakeman is seeking to make Nassau County’s taxes fair. That would be something that hasn’t been tried in Nassau in a long time.

 

 

 

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