Editorial: Take away assessing property from Nassau County

Editorial: Take away assessing property from Nassau County

We have changed our mind.

We now believe it should be the job of cities, towns and villages to set the value of properties in Nassau County to determine how much everyone pays in property taxes.

Anyone but the county government, which is currently in charge of the assessment of properties in Nassau.

This change is not based on the belief that cities, towns and villages are inherently better at evaluating the value of properties – as some believe.

We actually believe it would be more efficient for a normal functioning county to put together a team of qualified professionals to accurately determine the value of homes and commercial property.

But Nassau County is not a normal functioning government and, with just a few exceptions, never was.

“A leveling of an uneven, outdated and flawed property assessment system that is widely conceded to favor the rich and penalize minorities began in Nassau County last week, with property assessors snapping pictures of homes in the Village of Hempstead,” the New York Times reported.

The year? 2000.

That reassessment effort was the county’s first in 62 years – 62 years. Until then, the value of properties was pegged to 1938 construction costs.

And the county’s Republican leaders only agreed to the reassessment after a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the United States Justice Department and the state attorney general’s office.

The three said the assessment system used by Nassau favored wealthy white areas, where housing values rise quickly, over poorer black and Hispanic areas, where housing values have remained lower.

Then County Executive Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who was elected after Nassau effectively went bankrupt under Republican leadership in 2000, maintained accurate values during his term in office.

And then Ed Mangano, a Republican, became county executive.

Mangano froze tax assessments when he took office in 2009 following Superstorm Sandy. He said damage from the storm had caused a massive change in county property values that would be unfair to reassess.

But even as the impact of the storm subsided, Mangano did not reassess properties in Nassau.  He also allowed the assessment department’s staff to shrink and did not appoint a certified tax assessor.

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.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, ordered a reassessment of all properties in 2018 after winning office partly on the pledge to fix the assessment mess

Curran’s reassessment, conducted by a certified assessor, was found by a Newsday analysis to be “well within every major professional standard of accuracy and fairness.”

The new values took effect for the 2020-21 tax year. The next year, assessors updated property values slightly to keep pace with the market

Still, the assessment was challenged repeatedly by Republican legislators who remained silent during Mangano’s administration as well as residents – 50% to 75% of whom would have to pay more under the new property assessment.

The increases were so much in some cases and the political pressure so great that Curran agreed to phase in the changes over five years.

But on her way out of office, Curran ordered the rolls completely frozen for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 tax years with no public announcement.

At the time, she cited the instability in the housing market during the coronavirus pandemic.

Curran was defeated in 2022 by Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, who campaigned saying he had “a plan to immediately cut taxes and stop the County Executive Laura Curran’s massive “reassessment tax hikes that are killing our American dream.”

This was not true.

Blakeman has not cut taxes in his first two years in office.

And Curran’s reassessment was not truly a tax hike.

Curran’s reassessment revised the value of property so owners would pay their fair share in taxes. Which resulted in some people paying more – and some people paying less.

So it was as much a tax cut as it was a tax hike. The only difference was in this case minorities were the beneficiaries and the rich paid more.

But Blakeman has appeared to have done an effective job in framing the issue politically.

Samantha Goetz, a Republican who currently serves as a deputy county attorney under Blakeman, defeated incumbent county Legislator Josh Lafazan in a campaign in which she said her opponent had raised taxes on 65% of Nassau residents by voting for Curran’s reassessment plan.

Yes, it was dishonest. But it worked.

So what are the odds that Goetz, Blakeman or any other county Republican will vote to reassess Nassau properties anytime in the near future? That, by their definition, would result in taxes being raised.

Blakeman appointed Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips to conduct an audit of the reassessment done by Curran upon taking office and then again froze the assessment roles.

That did not change after Phillips’ audit determined that Curran’s reassessment relied on “flawed” data that was out of date and reduced the value of some 23,000 properties at the last minute without justifying the changes.

Has Blakeman called for another reassessment with accurate data? No.

In the meantime, property values become more and more inaccurate as some people challenge their assessments and others don’t.

There is another good reason properties will not be reassessed in the foreseeable future – money.

A political action committee backed by law firms that file thousands of property tax challenges each year donated $256,725 to Republican campaign committees, candidates and elected officials in Nassau County in 2022, according to Newsday.

This included $35,000 to Blakeman’s campaign against Curran.

An entire industry has been created in Nassau by property owners using these law firms to challenge the county’s inaccurate home assessments.

This is a real problem for Nassau County’s finances.

The grievances the law firms file result in refunds for not only county taxes but for schools and special districts as well under a so-called county guaranty.

This creates a big economic drain for the county, which has to borrow money each year to cover the refunds the county must give.

But it does fill the campaign coffers of both Republican and Democratic candidates – with most of the money going to Republicans who are now in charge of county government, all three towns and the city of Long Beach.

For those of you counting at home, the last time a Nassau County Republican supported a reassessment to ensure the fairness of property taxes was in 2000 – when the county was faced with a lawsuit they apparently thought they would lose.

Since then assessments have grown increasingly inaccurate during Mangano’s eight years as county executive and Blakeman’s two years.

The only break in the county’s failure to accurately value properties was during the first two of Curran’s four years in office.

Since then four years have gone by with inaccurate assessments frozen – unless challenged by property owners.

Having cities, towns and villages take responsibility for assessing property is not a partisan issue.

Jack Martins, a Republican who currently serves in the state Senate, suggested cities, towns and villages take responsibility when running for county executive in 2017 against Curran.

Mineola, a village where Martins served as mayor, reassesses its properties every year.

Lafazan called for cities, towns and villages to take over during his recent campaign, citing the county’s ongoing dysfunction.

We disagreed with Martins in 2017, siding with Curran who promised to fix what virtually everyone agrees is an assessment mess that grows worse by the day.

We don’t know if cities, towns and villages will be willing to take responsibility to make the payment of property taxes fair. Or if they would even do a better job than the county.

We just know they couldn’t do worse.

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  1. “Then County Executive Tom Suozzi, a Democrat who was elected after Nassau effectively went bankrupt under Republican leadership in 2000, maintained accurate values during his term in office.”

    Excellent piece, as always.

    It should be noted that the County guarantee was responsible for the County “effectively” going bankrupt, and it should have filed a Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Only the privilege of wealth prevented that outcome. I know of no other municipality in the country that was spared in this manner. It’s good to be rich.

    It should also be noted that the State explicitly warned Nassau about the outcome of their practices and where the County would wind up, in a report called “Bursting at the Seams.” Every official from Gulotta, to Assessor Abe Seldin, to then Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli simply yawned.

    Lastly, it was to Suozzi’s credit and a kind of vision this county’s officials are devoid of, that he suggested replacing part of the property tax assessment with an income tax. That would have added a much needed progressive element to the local tax code and would have helped attract younger people to afford to live here and let the older residents age in place as their prime earnings years ended. It also would have curbed tax challenges.

    Then Legislator Craig Johnson vetoed that, and I will never forget his political mailers boasting that he “single handedly” defeated CE Suozzi’s tax initiative. He also disingenuously framed it as an ADDITIONAL tax.

    The continued failures of this County’s fortunes rest on the fulcrum of Craig Johnson’s political career. He is the lynchpin of decades of this County’s continued dysfunction, and he should never be forgiven for it.

  2. “Blakeman appointed Nassau County Comptroller Elaine Phillips”

    Well that’s just wrong. Comptroller is an elected position.

    Maybe you meant Blakeman charged her with conducting the audit? In which case, it would still be wrong. Blakeman has no control over the Comptroller’s office.


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