Nassau legislators propose limits to advertising messages, fees of tax challenge firms

Nassau legislators propose limits to advertising messages, fees of tax challenge firms
Nassau County legislators joined Senator Kevin Thomas to propose legislation that would require firms to inform clients that they do not need to hire a tax certiorari firm to grieve their assessment, and caps the fees that tax challenge firms can charge property owners. (Photo by Karina Kovac)

State and local legislators met on the steps of the Mineola Executive Building last Thursday to propose legislation that would force fiscal transparency from tax challenge firms in their advertising and practices along with advocating for a qualified assessor to be appointed to help Nassau residents whose taxes have been affected.

State Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) introduced legislation aimed at curbing what he said he sees as deceptive and predatory practices within the tax challenge industry.

Thomas, who chairs the Senate’s Consumer Protection Committee, is pushing for reforms that would require tax challenge firms to provide clear information to their clients, specifically that hiring such a firm is not a necessity when disputing property tax assessments.

The proposed legislation would also place a cap on the fees these firms can charge property owners in the event of a successful assessment grievance.

A group representing the tax certiorari firms slammed the proposed legislation.

“Kevin Thomas’ indefensible bill would prevent tens of thousands of overtaxed homeowners from obtaining transparent and effective assistance to challenge their assessment,” the Committee for Fair Property Taxes said in a statement. “The Nassau tax certiorari industry routinely advises homeowners of their rights and seeks to protect them, and the net result of this bill would be fewer rights for homeowners and greater unfairness in the assessment system.”

Adam Heller, owner of The Heller & Consultants Tax Grievance Group said he would be fine with part of the legislation asking for a disclaimer about grieving for free, but believes that fee capping would be “unconstitutional” and that “I would say that most tax refund companies would go out of business” and that it would also “disenfranchise homeowners in New York State because there’s not going to be anybody to fight on their behalf any longer.”

Heller said that his firm has never made any political donations and he refutes the idea that it is a pay-to-play scheme producing maximum profits for minimal work, as stated by Thomas.

“I think that that is absolutely absurd,” Heller said, “Every case takes hours. There are no mass settlements anymore. I mean, years ago, in Nassau County, there were rumors of mass settlements. But that’s long gone. That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s never happened with my firm. Each house, each case is a separate and different case. And it takes a lot of work to what we’re essentially doing is proving that the home is worth less than what the municipality is assessing it for.”

He said that researchers who spend hours doing comparative market analysis, market research, and negotiations with the assessor might be out of a job should it pass.

The legislative move comes in response to growing concerns regarding the fairness of the tax assessment system and allegations of political influence in the industry.

One of the primary issues is the alleged use of deceitful tactics by tax grievance firms in their solicitations. Included is allegedly misleading residents into believing that filing a grievance is too complex for the average person.

Thomas and other local legislators said at a press conference last Thursday, “That is not the case.”

Property owners have the option of filing grievances in person or online, and no specialist is required for the process nor is there a fee to file.

“My bill would limit the fees these firms can charge clients grieving their assessment to 25% of the reduction,” Thomas said. “More importantly, it will require clear and concise disclosures informing homeowners that, yes, you can read your own tax bills, and the font should be 16 or larger.”

He said the goal of this legislation is to dismantle what is perceived as an unfair system and rein in predatory tax challenge firms.

Heller said that residents usually don’t have the knowledge of the process, time or resources to grieve their taxes.

“You could do it yourself,” Heller said, “It’s like hiring a painter to paint or doing it yourself. I choose personally to hire a painter because I’m not a very good painter. But I think that there are many things that you can do yourself that you hire somebody else to do, you know, you could mow your own lawn. There are plenty of things that you can hire somebody to do or that you could do yourself.”

The introduction of fee caps for grievance settlements is intended to reduce the profits of tax challenge firms, potentially mitigating their inclination to pursue high grievance levels and weakening their perceived political influence.

The issue of property tax assessment accuracy has been a point of contention in Nassau County amid allegations of a deteriorating system. Legislators have noted the impact of political donations on legislators and their ability to initiate change. The current system has been criticized for benefiting the wealthy while burdening the middle class with disproportionately high tax burdens.

Legislator Debra Mulé (D–Freeport) said under Former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, the county had one of the most accurate tax assessment roles in the state.

“Fast forward a few years, under (County Executive) Mangano, we went to having one of the worst, if not the worst tax assessment roles in the state,” she said. Mulé also said the county Legislature gave millions to reassess the tax rolls and that when Former County Executive Laura Curran was in office, she hired a qualified assessor for the county and once again the roll was accurate.

“Are you sensing a pattern?” Mulé asked, saying Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said he’d fix the tax rolls and now “we’re back to Mangano days” relying on the state to Band-aid the “broken promise” just like the tax cut that didn’t happen either.

Legislator Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview) said every day there are warnings not to get scammed or be vulnerable, but that’s what is happening with the tax refund firms. “They are taking advantage of people who can do a process and challenge their tax assessment easily,” he said.

Many legislators conduct workshops for residents to grieve their taxes.

“Instead of shelling out 50% of the tax reduction to these tax grievance firms we’re making a fortune off of people’s hard-earned money,” Drucker said, “It’s not fair. It’s not right. And we as the shepherds of the taxpayers’ dollars, as the public servants, hope to control some of the outlandish things that are being done.”

Legislator Carrié Solages (D-Lawrence) said the system is corrupt and that the Mineola press conference was not the first time legislators have complained about this issue.

“We have big political donations going to the other legislators, the 12 legislators, and these donations are preventing them from initiating any change.”

He said Nassau County should not only be a place to buy a home and start a family but where people can retire.

“People like my parents in Elmont own a $500,000 to $600,000 home, they’re paying $15,000 in taxes. People on the North Shore with million-dollar homes, they’re paying just $30,000. This system benefits the rich and hurts the middle class and we need to keep our middle class here.”

The unequal taxes have created a ripple of inequality he said.

“The ongoing deterioration of Nassau County’s assessment system has created an atmosphere in which inequity prevails, and property owners who fail to grieve are forced to shoulder a disproportionately large share of the tax burden,” Solages said.

While the proposed legislation seeks to address these concerns, challenges remain in finding a qualified assessor to improve the tax assessment process. Property owners are being urged not to shy away from attempting to grieve their own taxes, and there is a call for Blakeman to prioritize finding a qualified assessor.

Matthew Cronin had been the acting Nassau County Assessor up until June when he departed to become director of asset management for Suffolk County, which started on July 10.

Blakeman named Cronin as the acting assessor for a six-month term in May 2022. However, there was no subsequent request made by Blakeman to the Legislature to confirm Cronin as the permanent assessor once the acting appointment elapsed.

In recent years, there has been turnover in the position. In 2018, former Nassau Executive Laura Curran appointed David Moog, who served until January 2021. Subsequently, Curran appointed Robin Laveman as Moog’s successor, but the county Legislature, predominantly comprised of Republicans, did not convene a hearing to confirm this appointment.

Laveman assumed the role of acting assessor until January 2022 when Blakeman assumed office, replacing her with Cronin just four months later.

The Assessment Department has approximately 160 employees and a budget of $46 million and is responsible for developing an assessment roll covering the county’s 425,000 residential and commercial properties. This roll is used to calculate tax bills for schools, towns, and the county itself.

At the most recent budget hearing, Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, (D–Glen Cove)  said that “we are nowhere close to finding an assessor at this point.” She said residents need to urge Blakeman to make finding a qualified assessor a priority and “don’t be afraid to try and grieve your own taxes.”


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