Editorial: Tax people what they owe now

Editorial: Tax people what they owe now

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman announced two weeks ago that he had frozen the tax rolls used to determine what property owners owe the county, schools and special districts for the 2024-2025 school year.

This is the third consecutive year the tax rolls have been frozen in Nassau and the 11th consecutive under Republican county executives. And the third reason cited for justifying a freeze on assessment rolls.

The latest freeze means that the last time property owners in Nassau paid their fair share in taxes was 2008. And the next time will be in the 2024-2025 school year at the earliest. That’s 17 years.

Former County Executive Ed Mangano, a Republican, froze tax assessments when he took office in 2009 following Superstorm Sandy. Mangano 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, while he 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.

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, Newsday reported.

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 difference was so great in property values that Curran phased 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. She cited a second reason – instability in the housing market during the coronavirus pandemic

Blakeman, a Republican, and Acting Assessor Matthew Cronin cited several reasons for the latest freeze, including a third given by a county executive – a Jan. 12 audit of Curran’s program by GOP county Comptroller Elaine Phillips.

It said the Curran administration relied on “flawed data” and made 23,000 last-minute changes before the roll went live.

Blakeman also said the “phase-in” of assessment changes implemented by the previous administration – supported by Republican legislators – exacerbated profound disparities. The COVID pandemic, he said, further destabilized the real estate market and associated home values.

David Moog, who oversaw the reassessment under Curran, has said all changes cited by Phillips were made in his second year to improve the accuracy of the roll.

And Democratic legislators and assessment professionals said the latest freeze will only make the county’s assessment system more unfair.

Larry Clark, the retired director of strategic initiatives for the nonprofit International Association of Assessing Officers, said freezing values “assumes that there’s absolutely no change in the market from the year that the values were set through the year that the values were frozen — and that’s just not true.”

Nassau County Legislator Debra Mulé (D-Freeport) told Newsday the lastest freeze is “putting all of the hard work and money that was put into the new assessment that much out of whack, and guarantees that unless you grieve your taxes, you’re going to be paying more than your fair share.”

Blakeman’s decision to freeze assessments raises several questions.

Does he oppose a phase-in of assessments during his administration? If so, he should say so. That would allow property owners to prepare for large changes in their tax bills in the future.

Why, if Phillips had discovered flaws in the data, did the county not fix the flaws and use the corrected information to accurately assess homes for the 2024-2025 school year?

And do county Republicans actually want a fair assessment system?

Or do they benefit politically from a broken system in which older, white and more affluent voters actually pay less than their fair share?

Blakeman’s decision to freeze assessments comes at a time when Republican majorities in the Nassau County Legislature and Hempstead Town Board are being accused of gerrymandering new district maps in a way that gives minorities short shrift. Just as the assessment system does.

Is this a coincidence? We don’t think so.

There are other political benefits to a broken assessment system enjoyed by both political parties – the generous campaign benefits provided by the many law firms that challenge assessments.

These certiorari firms, in turn, usually receive half the money saved – a very lucrative business in a county with a broken assessment system.

Elected officials of both parties also get to take credit for providing constituent service in the form of workshops on how to challenge their assessments – and save money.

This is a good thing for property owners and elected officials.

But a very bad thing for Nassau County’s finances, which under yet another disastrous financial decision made long ago by the county guarantees to refund money awarded in assessment challenges not only to the county but for schools and special districts as well. 

The school districts account for nearly two-thirds of a property owner’s tax bill; the county is a mere 16% or 17%. But Nassau absorbs the total hit when assessments are successfully challenged.

This helps explain the financial problems faced by the county, one of the wealthiest in New York State, that to this day remains under state oversight via the Nassau Interim Finance Authority.

Yes, other countries around the state can handle property tax assessments.

But perhaps it’s not Republican or Democratic politics in Nassau that make it so difficult to assess property.  Perhaps it’s the property tax system.

County executives have now frozen assessments due to Superstorm Sandy, COVID and bad data for all but two years from 2009 to 2025 – a remarkable 16 years.

That would seem to indicate that property taxes are not a very reliable way to pay for government – at least in Nassau.

And even if assessments are 100% accurate, property taxes are often unfair because they are based on the value of a person’s home – not the homeowners’ income or ability to pay.

The most common alternative to the property tax is the income tax. The federal government uses one. The state uses one. New York City uses one.

Perhaps it’s time for Nassau County to use one, either to cover all or part of its expenses.

Either that or the county should determine the actual value of properties starting next year. And property owners should start paying what they actually owe without any further delays.


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