Republicans put forward tax ‘Bill of Rights’

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The County Legislature’s Republican majority announced on July 17 that it would propose a legislative package comprising an “Assessment Bill of Rights” aimed at providing county taxpayers with protection from what members described as deficiencies in the current assessment process.

“For nearly a year, the Curran administration has ignored taxpayers, who are confused by her error-riddled reassessment process,” 19th District Legislator Steven Rhoads said in a statement, referring to County Executive Laura Curran. The package would “force the Curran administration’s assessment process to be more open and transparent,” Rhoads added.

In a conversation with the Herald, Rhoads, a Bellmore Republican whose district covers large areas of both Seaford and Wantagh, said that more than 100,000 errors had been noted since the seesaw grapple over property assessments began last year. Curran has made correcting the assessment process, which both sides agree fell into disarray under former County Executive Edward Mangano, the linchpin of her administration’s policies.

Just days after the Republican announcement, the standoff between the two sides left in limbo a state-approved proposal to phase in changes over five years. The Legislature must also approve the measure by enacting local enabling legislation.

“We’ll pass some version of the phase-in,” Rhoads said. “But we don’t want to see it rushed.”

The county currently has more than 250,000 pending property tax grievances out of the nearly 400,000 residential properties on the rolls, Rhoads said. “We won’t really know until the end of the process if the current assessments are accurate or not,” he said.

The proposed Bill of Rights is to include notices of the results of property grievances; tax impact statements to accompany notices of homeowners’ assessments; an end to what Rhoads describes as “needlessly intrusive property inspections” by the Department of Assessment; disclosure of the formulas and algorithms used in calculating assessments; public hearings throughout the county explaining the system; and a law requiring the assessor to be a Nassau County resident. The current assessor, David Moog, lives in Sunnyside, Queens.

Rhoads alleged that of the 30 community meetings originally scheduled by the county, “Not one of them ever took place.” Instead, individual legislators have scheduled their own gatherings to explain proposed changes.

Rhoads was also concerned that Curran’s proposals would put the county on a collision course with the state for violating the so-called 6/20 rule, contained in the State Real Property Tax Law. According to the rule, property taxes may not increase by more than 6 percent per year, or by more than 20 percent in any five-year period.

“Let’s say a property that has successfully grieved its assessment has a current market value of $500,000. The homeowner pays $1,250 in property tax, at the assessment rate of 0.25 percent,” Rhoads explained. But assessed values are more than doubling in some cases, as the rolls begin to reflect true market values, he said, raising taxes past the 6 percent annual increase permitted by law, assuming the 0.25 rate of assessment.

Curran signed an executive order last September that cut the level of assessment on the county’s 386,000 residential properties to 0.10 percent.

Further muddying the picture, however, Rhoads said that the rate of so-called neighborhood taxes was unclear. “Houses that are otherwise the same in, say, Wantagh Woods or Forest Lake or Mandalay might be assessed differently, according to the desirability of the neighborhood,” he said. “I don’t understand how the assessor is calculating these rates, and I’m a legislator. If I don’t understand it, how is an ordinary taxpayer supposed to?”

Finally, Rhoads pointed to efforts by Long Island Democrats in the State Legislature to provide some $200 million in relief for taxpayers whose assessments are expected to increase. The effort, which was spearheaded by North Hempstead Democratic Sen. Anna Kaplan, would only help those whose taxes were expected to increase, Rhoads said. “But there’s nothing for the people who have been overpaying. Where’s the flipside?”

In any event, the issue was moot, since the state doesn’t have funds for such a measure in its 2019-20 budget, state Budget Director Robert Mujica said in March, before the budget was passed.

Curran’s proposed five-year phase-in included a “taxpayer protection plan” intended to soften the blow of any increases, as the county seeks to produce the first accurate and complete assessment in 10 years. As part of the plan, homeowners would be exempted from paying tax on a percentage of their increases, although the amount would decrease for each of the five years of the phase-in.

Repeated efforts to reach Curran and members of the minority caucus were unsuccessful.

Rhoads said his office estimated that of the cases adjudicated to date, about 8 percent of the homeowners in his district will end up paying more, with roughly 42 percent seeing a decrease.

Independent experts weighed in on Curran’s reassessment plans in April, saying that they found it “fairer and more accurate” than the current system, according to Newsday. After surveying some 10,000 recent property sales in the county, the experts, including University of Memphis Professor Mark Sunderman and independent researcher J. Wayne Moore, reported an error rate of between 7.8 and 8.8 percent. “Getting much better is not really feasible,” Moore was quoted as saying. Moore has implemented more than 300 mass appraisals across the country as a real property appraisal expert.