After nearly a decade of grappling with a broken property-assessment system that left Nassau County vulnerable to property-tax challenges by residents and their attorneys, the administration of County Executive Laura Curran is finalizing the 2020-21 tax rolls for 386,000 residential properties, after a months-long reassessment — the first since 2011.
By the county’s estimates, 52 percent of property owners can expect their property taxes to increase, while 48 percent can expect them to decrease. The reassessment is intended to update the assessment rolls to current market values and eliminate the wide discrepancies in valuations caused by homeowners who had habitually, and successfully, filed tax certiorari claims to reduce their taxes. When homeowners win certiorari cases, those who do not file for reductions must make up the difference in taxes, leading to higher bills for them.
“When I ran for office, I promised that I would fix the assessment mess,” Curran wrote in an op-ed for the Herald. “I plan to fulfill that promise.”
The process has, however, angered many residents, who in late October began receiving letters no-tifying them that, in certain cases, the county had determined that their homes were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more than in previous years.
At a Jan. 9 meeting at the Valley Stream American Legion, County Legislator William Gaylor criticized the reassessment process. Speaking to more than 100 residents from Valley Stream, Rockville Centre, Lynbrook and Hewlett, Gaylor, a Republican from Lynbrook, described what he said was a litany of broken promises and mistakes by Curran, a Democrat from Baldwin. The errors, he said, had sown confusion among residents. He also accused Curran of pitting county residents who may see tax reductions against those who may see hikes.
A flawed process?
“The reassessment process is flawed,” he told the crowd. “I want you to grieve your taxes, this year and the next year.”
Gaylor criticized what he said was a lack of transparency with the formula employed by David Moog to reassess properties. Moog is the certified tax assessor hired by Curran to carry out the assessment overhaul.
Gaylor said there were factual errors in the county’s property data that would affect home values. He noted that the county has had to make a series corrections in its calculations, first for 20,000 assessments that would have put them over a state-mandated 6 percent cap on year-to-year assessment increases, and later for 60,000 properties that had inaccurate tax-impact values.
Gaylor was critical of what he said was Moog’s impersonal approach to changing the county rolls to reflect market values. He cited previous reassessments, which employed the use of inspectors to examine homes. This time, however, Moog used software called Prognose to take an algorithmic approach to determine the updated values, the details of which Gaylor claimed were withheld from members of the Legislature.
Rockville Centre resident Vicki Johnson, whose home jumped in value from roughly $770,000 to $1.1 million, said she was surprised to hear that lawmakers did not have access to the details of Moog’s algorithmic approach.
“I did not know that [Curran’s] not letting the Legislature see the formula,” she said. “She should. They’re our legislative body.”
Johnson acknowledged that her husband had gone before the Assessment Review Commission every other year for the past 23 years to have their property value reduced, but was concerned about what the jump could mean for their chances to sell their home.
“There’s no transparency,” she said, “and with all due respect, Laura Curran ran on transparency.”
Moog countered that he has presented his methodology before the Legislature at three separate legislative sessions, and that his model uses market data from more than 100 comparable homes to determine a property’s market value.
“This is a mass appraisal system,” he said, noting that some homes may be slightly overvalued and others may be slightly undervalued, and encouraged residents to come to the county and challenge their assessments if they believe they are inaccurate.
“The county assessor believes that with the help of our two outside vendors, Standard Valuation Services and Michael Haberman Associates, we got the fair market values right during this reassessment,” Karen Contino, Curran’s spokeswoman, said. “But with that said, reassessment of property values is always a moving target.”
She added that the county assessor’s office was already working to update property information for the next year, and that it would reassess properties annually going forward to ensure accurate rolls.
In his presentation, Gaylor made no mention of the former County Executive Ed Mangano, a Republican from Bethpage, who, when facing skyrocketing tax-refund costs, froze the tax rolls in 2010, while gutting the Department of Assessment, opting instead to settle tax grievances out of court.
The move saddled the county with outdated property information, and precipitated a cascade of successful tax-grievance settlements, allowing, in many cases, the prices on homes to be reduced to significantly lower than their actual market values.
Lisa Lombardi, who grew up in Valley Stream, said that she had filed for certiorari on her home for several years to lower her taxes. Coupled with the already high cost of living in Nassau County, the reassessment, she said, “is like the straw that’s breaking my back.”
Lombardi said that county actions under Curran are pitting those who had reduced the taxes on their homes against those who had not, and added that winning a tax certiorari case does not help reduce taxes as much as it might seem, because the attorneys that she has hired to make her case take half of the settlement.
Under reassessment, she said, “Now I’m getting penalized for something I lawfully did, and the people that sat back and did nothing, now they’re going to write them that check?”
Lombardi, however, acknowledged that it was unfair for residents who had not grieved to pay for other homeowners’ reduced taxes. According to certain estimates, the reassessment will transfer $1.7 billion of the county tax burden from residents who had not grieved over the years to those who did.
“If everybody grieved, everyone would win,” she said. “. . . I think it’s unfair, because I saved money, you have to pay more now?”
Out of the assessment business?
Throughout the presentation, the question lingered of when the tax increases and decreases would take effect. Curran is currently asking Albany to pass legislation to allow for a five-year phase-in period for the full, reassessed values and rates to take effect.
Gaylor was skeptical that state lawmakers would tackle such legislation, because it would potentially tie their names to tax increases, and leave those who would see reductions waiting five years for their full savings to take effect.
Nassau County is currently the only county in the state that handles its own tax assessments, and elsewhere in New York, those responsibilities typically fall on village and town governments.
“A simple solution,” he said, “would be for Nassau County to get out of the assessment business.”
Moog, however, remained confident in the process he was employing, dismissing the criticisms as partisan opportunism.
“We serve the taxpayers of Nassau County,” he said, “not special interests.”