Editorial: Some signs of sense in county goverment

The Island Now

County Executive Laura Curran recently did something that might seem obvious anywhere else, but in Nassau marked a red-letter day.

What Curran did was sign an executive order requiring the county assessor to maximize the accuracy of what Nassau bases residents’ tax rates on.

This was intended to allow the county to successfully defend against tax challenges and avoid the need for mass settlements and excessive refunds beginning with the 2020-21 tax year.

In a cash-strapped county like Nassau, which owes more than $700 million to property owners, this is a welcome sign of sanity.

Even better, County Assessor David Moog came up with a residential assessment rate –  0.1 percent – that will sharply reduce the level of assessment for 386,000 properties that have been overpaying their taxes because they have not challenged their tax bills in the past.

Those overpaying just so happen to be less affluent and composed of a higher percentage of minority members.

Under Curran’s plan, that disparity in assessments would be corrected over five years. Too long in our books, but better than any alternative proposed.

Oyster Bay Town Tax Receiver James Stefanich helpfully pointed out that “we’re going to see big tax increases, relatively speaking. The same amount of being raised, but the burden on the taxpayer is being shifted around. It will have a negative impact on people with higher value properties.”

Precisely. For the past eight years, “people with higher value properties” have been paying their property taxes at a lower rate than people with lower value properties.

And now Curran wants to make them pay their fair share. Horrors.

Stefanich’s comments remind us of the words Leona Helmsley was quoted as saying during her trial in federal court: “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.”

Helmsley, you may recall, was a flamboyant New York real estate developer in the 1980s convicted of tax evasion. Imagine that.

Newsday estimated that property owners who have appealed successfully since 2010 saved $448 million in the most recent tax year alone.

“Had the county not awarded any of those reductions, the tax bills of those who appealed successfully would have been an average of $1,800 higher while those who were not awarded them would have been about $2,500 lower,” according to Newsday.

Nassau County Legislator Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said the new level of assessment will raise taxes for homeowners and decrease their chance of successfully challenging in court.

Nicolello thinks this is a bad thing, allowing some people’s rates to go up 20 or 50 percent in the coming year. He pointed out that the new assessment ratio reduces the number of homeowners protected by a 6 percent state cap on property tax increases.

In doing so, Nicolello essentially admitted how much some people were underpaying their taxes. And that he doesn’t want to see them begin paying their fair share for years to come.

Nicolello and his fellow Republicans in the county Legislature responded to Curran’s executive order by proposing a law to require the county to disclose the potential impact of the reassessment on residents’ property tax bills.

Now, we are strong supporters of transparency in government and an informed electorate.

But somehow we don’t believe that is the intent of the Republican legislators.

Republican legislators never recommended a similar disclosure during the eight years in which Edward Mangano served as county executive, a period in which the property assessment roll was frozen.

“During this time,” Curran noted in a news release, “real estate values increased dramatically, creating a large discrepancy between the market values used by the County in determining assessments and actual market values. The combination of the frozen roll and mass settlements severely degraded the accuracy and integrity of assessments and shifted the tax burden disproportionately.”

The Republican legislators also did not complain that Mangano never bothered to hire a licensed county assessor during his entire term – a failure that Curran correct shortly after her election.

The Republican legislators and Mangano did benefit greatly from the large campaign contributions given by a small group of firms that challenged county assessments that officials admitted were grossly inaccurate.

There is also the fact that under the county’s plan Nassau would be required to give tax bill estimates two years in advance, rendering them out of date.

But perhaps we are being too hard on the Republicans.

Let’s test this with a modest proposal.

Let the county go ahead and disclose the potential impact of reassessment on residents’ property tax bills.

But let’s also include the impact on residents’ property tax bills during the eight years in which tax rolls were frozen.

This will show residents who have underpaid in the past how much money they saved. This might make them more willing to accept steep increases this year.

And this will show residents who have overpaid how much money the county’s system cost them.

If a business is found to have overcharged its customers, it is forced to refund the money.

Perhaps those who have been overpaying will get together to have the county do the same.

We’re certain they will be more likely to vote in the next election for county legislators.

In the meantime, Republicans legislators should stop their games and support the creation of a system in which all county residents are paying their fair share as soon as possible.

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