Nassau County is now in the thick of its first property-tax reassessment in nearly a decade. As a result of this arduous process, 200,720 of the county’s 386,000 homes are tentatively slated to pay more in property taxes in 2020-21, when the reassessment is to take effect.
That’s 52 percent of homes — and 52 percent of homeowners who could be ticked off at County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat who is making good on a campaign promise to reassess.
The media has been in something of a frenzy to cover the public’s ire, while at least some Republican politicos have smelled blood in the water and have been firing their salvos at the relatively new county executive.
Those who will pay more shouldn’t be angry with Curran, however. Everyone — homeowners, lawmakers and the media — must first recognize that the property assessment crisis is not of her doing. It was decades in the making, and the problem was only made worse by former County Executive Ed Mangano,who demonstrated relatively little desire to tackle an issue as complex as assessment.
Mangano froze the property-tax rolls starting in 2011. Ever since, assessments have stayed put, unless homeowners filed for reductions — which tens of thousands of Nassau residents did, as was their right under the law. Many of those who did not grieve — and there were tens of thousands of them as well — paid more as a result.
That was unfair.
At its core, reassessment is about restoring tax fairness to Nassau County. We applaud Curran for her willingness to step, as she has put it, on the “third rail” of politics and address this critical issue. Fixing the assessment system will help secure the county’s long-term fiscal health. Doing nothing could eventually lead to bankruptcy. Over the years, the county has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars to pay property-tax settlements. At some point, that practice will become unsustainable.
It’s wrong of Republican elected leaders like Donald Clavin, the Town of Hempstead’s tax collector, to criticize Curran’s handling of the reassessment process, without offering solutions of their own.
Yes, there have been careless missteps, glitches and even a blunder or two. Curran has a responsibility to get this right. Reassessment is, however, a monumental process, so mistakes are to be expected. We should judge the county executive on her willingness to listen and correct the errors as they arise, and thus far she has shown a desire to do just that.
After a months-long reassessment, the county recently issued tentative assessments and tax estimates for 2020-21. On Dec. 13, officials announced that assessments on 40,000 properties — roughly 10 percent of the total — would be adjusted to fix errors. That’s how the process is supposed to work. The county hired a professional assessor, David Moog, to assess properties. Then, when inevitable mistakes were found, they were corrected — and will continue to be corrected.
There will be many who will have to pay dramatically more in taxes under the reassessment. They must keep in mind, however, that they likely paid considerably less for years, while their neighbors paid more than their fair share.
They must also remember that they can continue to file tax grievances if they believe their properties are now over-assessed. They will, however, stand less of a chance that their properties will receive the deep reductions in property taxes that they have in the past, because the tax rolls will, at long last, be largely corrected.
Why some pay more and some pay less
The reason why roughly half of homeowners are paying more than their fair share of property taxes, while half are paying less, is at once simple and complicated.
Let’s start with total assessed value — the total dollar amount that properties within a municipality, such as a county, city, town or village, or a school district are assessed at. When individual homeowners grieve their property taxes and win reductions (as they nearly always have in the past), total assessed value is reduced. When many homeowners win property-tax reductions, collectively they cause a precipitous drop in value.
Here’s the thing: The tax levy — the total amount that the municipality or district must collect in taxes to meet expenses — remains the same, despite the drop in value. That is, the government still needs a certain amount in tax dollars to pay its bills. So those who do not grieve must make up for the drop in value, or the government must reduce expenses. In virtually all cases in the past, those who did not file tax certiorari paid more — often a lot more, depending on the community.