Editorial: The hidden costs of bad county government

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Forget, for the moment, the embarrassment of the state Senate majority leader being convicted, the county executive being indicted and the deputy county executive being investigated by the FBI — all for things they did involving Nassau County contracts.

Ignore, for now, the lax supervision of contracts by the county Legislature.

Set aside the bewilderment of one of the wealthiest counties in New York requiring state supervision of its finances for 17 years after going hat in hand to the state Legislature for a bailout.

Why bother to vote in the coming county elections?

After all, while the amount is not insignificant, the county represents only about 16 percent of a Nassau resident’s property tax bill — compared with 67 percent for school taxes.

True, the county has in recent years — and perhaps the coming year — hidden additional taxes in the form of exorbitant real estate fees and surcharges on tickets.

But for the average taxpayer the cost still does not compare with schools. And many services are provided by towns, cities and, for those living in incorporated areas, villages.

So why bother to vote?

We can offer one reason: almost all local governments are connected by one thing — who determines the basis by which each property owner is taxed. That is the job of the county.

And the county does it very badly.

How badly?

It is estimated that in 2018 the county will pay $80 million to $100 million to people who have successfully challenged the assessed value of their homes or businesses.

This in a year in which the state financial control board that oversees the county’s finances says the budget presented by the county has a $50 million deficit.

This is not just money owed for county taxes.

Nassau, and Nassau alone in New York State, operates under what is called a County Guaranty in which the county pays the full cost — the refunds — of all  money owed under successful property tax challenges. This includes schools and other governments. This helps explain the county’s annual fiscal woes.

What’s worse for property owners is that the $80 million to $100 million in rebates does not go only to property owners.

The embarrassment that is the county’s assessment system has spawned a cottage industry of firms that file tax claims on behalf of property owners.

The firms, among the largest contributors to county campaigns, represent more than half the property owners who successfully challenge their taxes, usually receiving about half of what they save the homeowners. 

Why, one might ask, should homeowners have to go through the appeal process and then share with these firms money which was not due the county in the first place?

But it is a far worse deal for homeowners who do not grieve their taxes, who tend to be among the less affluent.

They get nothing back and end up picking up the cost of the homeowners who have successfully challenged their taxes.

The difference between challenging and not challenging could be seen in a recent investigation by Newsday, which found next-door neighbors with similar homes paying wildly different tax rates.

Incredibly, virtually every town and county official contributes to this problem, by encouraging property owners to grieve their taxes.

They do so knowing that the county has not reassessed residential property since 2009 and is anxious to settle with residents, rather than go to court and incur even greater costs.

But this is still crazy and unfair.

Rather than encourage tax challenges, why not demand an accurate assessment system in which tax challenges are far less necessary?

Former state Sen. Jack Martins, the Republican candidate for county executive, has proposed that the assessment system be delegated to the towns — a responsibility and expense that the towns seem unwilling to assume.

Delegating the responsibility to the towns would eliminate the cost of assessments to the county, including those under the County Guaranty.

Stephen Labriola, who is running with Martins for county comptroller, said the county has already proved its inability to assess property and the towns would do better job, a strange admission for someone running for county office.

Labriola said a Republican administration would also ask the state Legislature to eliminate the County Guaranty — a change vehemently opposed in the past by school boards that would now share the cost of successful tax challenges.

Nassau County Legislator Laura Curran, the Democratic candidate for county executive, has called for reassessing residential property every three years and reforming the commercial property system.

When he was challenging Curran for the Democratic nomination for county executive, county Comptroller George Maragos said that based on the current technology there was no reason the county couldn’t reassess residential property every year at its real value.

We find it hard to believe that the technology does not exist for the county to accurately reassess all property every year.

We hope voters will appreciate how the assessment system affects them.  And then remember all the issues we earlier asked you to set aside and vote on Nov. 7.

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