Editorial: What fairness got to do with taxes in Nassau?

Editorial: What fairness got to do with taxes in Nassau?

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman proposed a $4.1 billion budget for 2024 last week that would raise county spending by $180 million over last year, fund 50 new positions, and not raise property taxes.

But Democratic Nassau County Legislators were not happy.

They said Blakeman had failed to honor a campaign promise made in 2021 to cut property taxes by over $128 million. Which is true.

“Bruce Blakeman is running for Nassau County executive with a plan to immediately cut taxes and stop the County Executive Laura Curran’s massive “Reassessment Tax Hikes that are killing our American dream,” Blakeman’s campaign wrote in a fund-raising email that county Democrats shared this week.

Noting that Nassau County had accumulated more than $1 billion in reserves, the Minority Caucus called for Blakeman to deliver on his campaign promise and cut taxes.

Oddly, no mention was made by the Democrats of Blakeman’s claim that reassessment under Curran was a massive tax hike or that many people who haven’t challenged their assessment are overpaying their taxes.

This should be considered a victory for Blakeman and a sign of Democrats abandoning previously held principles.

Blakeman is half right that Curran’s reassessment of county properties raised property taxes – on people who had been underpaying them.

For those who have been overpaying their taxes – mostly people who had not challenged the assessed value of their homes – taxes went down.

According to a Newsday report, $2.7 billion in property taxes was shifted over the eight years in which no reassessment was done during the administration of County Executive Ed Mangano, a Republican, from people who challenged the assessed value of their property to those who didn’t.

Thus, people who had been underpaying their taxes by a large amount faced large increases. So high that Curran and Republican county legislators agreed to phase in the changes in property values over five years.

The amount of money the county was collecting did not change. Only how much each property owner paid.

Apparently, Blakeman did not believe two years ago that those who had been overpaying their taxes were part of “our American dream.”

Curran, whose reassessment faced heated opposition, froze assessments for the 2022-23 tax year during the COVID pandemic when house prices spiked in Nassau

Curran described the move as temporary until the heated housing market settled down after the pandemic only to extend the freeze for the 2023-24 tax year shortly before she left office.

Upon taking office in 2022, Blakeman called for county Comptroller Elaine Phillips to conduct an audit of the assessment system.

Phillips’ audit found 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.

But, she noted, using this data to update the county’s assessments was up to Blakeman.

In February, Blakeman froze the tax rolls for the 2024-25 school year, keeping more than 385,000 residential properties at values last calculated in late 2019.

And so far he has not said if or when county properties will be reassessed.

Experts note that the longer the county waits to reassess properties the more inaccurate the assessment of individual properties.

The county Democrats’ call last week for Blakeman to cut taxes does not mention the many people overpaying their taxes.

“At a time when the costs for various commodities are increasing across the board, this budget provides us with an opportunity to embrace the principles of good government and deliver relief to taxpayers in a meaningful and impactful way,” Nassau County Legislator Siela A. Bynoe (D–Westbury) said in a press release. “I urge the county executive and our colleagues in the Legislature to coalesce behind an approach that we successfully employed in the recent past and demonstrate to our constituents that we have the best interests of their families at the forefront of our minds.”

Other Democratic legislators issued similar sentiments.

Nassau County Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D–Glen Cove) specifically called for a “significant tax cut that will help all of our constituents.”

No one – Democrat or Republican – talked about fairness.

In light of this, we have a modest proposal.

Democrat and Republican legislators alike regularly offer workshops to property owners on how to challenge their property taxes.

Many other homeowners hire law firms to challenge the assessment of their homes for them.

And most people are successful. This pushes more of the tax burden on those who don’t challenge the assessed value of their homes, who tend to be younger, less affluent and comprised of more minority members.

So why not help all property owners challenge their assessments even if takes filling out the applications for them or connecting them with a law firm that will do it for residents?

This would serve as a de facto reassessment of all county property.

This is not a perfect solution and there would be a potentially high cost both for conducting the grievances and paying residents back for overcharges.

There is always a margin of error when a property is assessed, hence the grievance process.

And property taxes are based on what a person’s home is worth, not their ability to pay taxes. So this is unfair to people who see a decline in their income as a result of retirement, a death, or a lost job.

But the grieving of all properties would make the tax burdens much fairer. It would also give people a more accurate picture of the cost of government.

This includes money for school districts, which usually represent two-thirds of the taxes a property owner pays rather than county government, which is closer to 16% or 17%.

This is particularly important to Nassau, which agreed decades ago to guarantee the money it collects for schools and special districts. If there is a successful challenge, the county foots the bill.

Mangano tried to end the guarantee, but a campaign led by school districts successfully blocked the change in the state Legislature.

In freezing the tax rolls Blakeman and Curran effectively cut taxes for those who would have paid more under the reassessment – and raised them for those who were scheduled to see a tax cut.

Blakeman said two years ago in a tweet, distributed last week by Democrat legislators, that “Nassau homeowners need relief now, and not the peanuts [Curran] offering us while her tax hikes settle in!”

Four years before that Curran won election by running a campaign that called for ending the county’s dysfunctional tax system.

Both Nassau Republicans and Democrats apparently have short memories about their promises. Or perhaps they believe voters do.

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