A number of residents who rebuilt or repaired their homes after Hurricane Sandy expressed shock when they received their school tax bills last week and saw significant increases. City officials say the hikes are due to Nassau County’s “broken” assessment system.
Claudia Decker’s West End bungalow was destroyed in the storm. She took out a Small Business Administration loan and replaced it with a new modular home in 2014.
Like many residents, Decker said she had expected a gradual increase in her taxes. But last week, her school taxes leapt to $10,500 from $4,200 last year. Along with city and real estate taxes, she said, she’s on the hook for about $16,500.
“I was having a hard time breathing,” said Decker, adding that she paid a little under $4,000 in school taxes before the storm. “Can you imagine — you go home and open your tax bill and say, What do I owe now? Instead of seeing $4,000, you see $10,000? I have another neighbor who lives down the street … and she got a big increase as well.”
County, city and school officials said that the increase comes after homeowners’ properties were reassessed by the county, and was not a result of the most recent school tax levy increase.
“There was no warning that this was going to happen, and all of a sudden, we’re hit with enormous tax bills, without even a letter,” said Fran Adelson, a former city councilwoman and real estate broker who rebuilt her storm-damaged home in the Canals. She added that when she received her bill on Oct. 9, her school taxes had doubled. “It’s unaffordable,” Adelson said. “People didn’t get enough money to rebuild in the first place, and now they’re being hit with a tax bill that may force some of them to leave Long Island.”
Jim Davis, the county’s acting assessor, said that about 100 properties in Long Beach that were rebuilt or repaired after the storm were reassessed. “People that have rebuilt are seeing the property going back to the pre-Sandy value,” said Davis. “And if they had gone above and beyond the original footprint [of the home] before Sandy, that would be a little bit more of an increase.”
According to Davis, the county informed homeowners in January 2016 that the reassessment would be reflected in their 2017-18 tax bills, and they had until March 2016 to grieve them.
“With assessment, a lot of people get the sticker shock,” said Davis, adding that residents can grieve their taxes next year. “We kept going out to these properties to make sure they were done, and if not, we kept them at their determined damage amounts. We wanted to make sure we didn’t put anybody up to their pre-Sandy values if their windows were still boarded up. We didn’t want to impact them any more than we had to.”
But Adelson and others said they did not recall receiving the January 2016 notice. Homeowners had expected an increase, Adelson said, but no one knew their taxes could double. The Adelsons were required to completely rebuild and did not increase the square footage of their new home. Fran said the new taxes are not in line with pre-Sandy values. “They waited to tell us the amount so we couldn’t even grieve them,” she said. “We had no idea we were going to get this increase. They could have phased it in.”
County Legislator Denise Ford (R-Long Beach) said she was also shocked by some of the stories she heard, and had urged the assessor’s office to create an email address to assist residents who rebuilt after Sandy, email@example.com.
“There’s got to be a mistake somewhere — someone told me that her taxes went up $6,000,” said Ford, who was set to meet with the assessor’s office on Monday. “This just hit, and if need be, we will have to demand that an extension be given to pay your taxes.”
In 2013, the County Legislature passed a resolution to adopt the state’s Superstorm Sandy Tax Assessment Relief program, clearing the way for residents to apply for tax refunds on properties damaged by the storm. Many homeowners hit hard by Sandy received property tax bills that year that were based on the pre-storm value of their properties and did not reflect losses in value attributable to storm damage.
“Initially, the county adjusted or refunded taxes, but that was only for two years,” said Ray Flammer, the city’s tax assessor. “So, people who are getting large increases are those who built a new house or expanded and lifted what they had. Anyone who didn’t file a grievance or did new work would see a dramatic increase in taxes. [The county is] giving a different ratio to homes that grieved their taxes compared to homes that don’t, and they’re not telling anybody this.”
Payments are due on Nov. 10, and many people are now left wondering how they will make them. “A few people I spoke to about it are pretty freaked out,” said council Vice President Anthony Eramo, who elevated his West End home and saw a significant increase as well. “A lot of people are going to have a hard time making these increased payments with no notice.”
Resident George Trepp, a former director of the Long Beach Public Library, said he made what he called basic repairs after Sandy, but his taxes nearly doubled. Last year, he said, his school taxes were $3,488. Last week, he said, he was taken aback when he saw that it had increased to $6,867.
“We weren’t aware that it was going to go up this dramatically, and we do usually grieve,” Trepp said. “All we did after Sandy was put the house back together again. We did not lift the house. We did not redesign the house or increase the square footage. We didn’t add anything to the house. It’s basically the same as what it was before Sandy.”
Trepp said that before the storm, he paid $4,395 in school taxes — school and county taxes account for about 65 percent of residents’ tax bills — and his home was valued at $447,000.
“Even at pre-Sandy value, it’s gone up by 50 percent,” he said of his most recent tax bill. “We understand why taxes go up, but I think to go in one year from $3,400 to $6,800 is a little difficult. If they had done it gradually, that’s understandable, but giving people a short amount of time to come with this money is impractical.”
City calls for review of Sandy assessments
City Manager Jack Schnirman, a Democrat running for county comptroller, and others said that the tax increases reflected the county’s broken assessment system, and that many homes were over-assessed. The council sent a letter to Davis this week calling for a review of “unfair” assessments.
“The county is over-assessing homes that had not filed grievances,” Schnirman said, “and residents deserve accurate assessments and to only pay their fair share.”
He added that homeowners are being assessed at a rate of .0025 percent, rather than .0016 percent for those who grieved their taxes.
“We’re seeing people whose homes just hit the tax rolls with new construction — be it an addition, a lift or a new house altogether — and they’ve seen dramatic increases in taxes,” Schnirman said. “We believe all residential properties in the county should be at the same level of assessment, an equitable level as dictated by state law.”
Jeff Gold, a Bellmore attorney who specializes in tax grievances, said that the increases caught many residents off guard, and not just in Long Beach.
“A lot of these people got their tax bills and never had a chance to grieve them because they closed their permits after the grievance period ended,” said Gold, a Democrat who is challenging County Legislator Steve Rhoads in the 19th District. “What should have been done is that a qualified assessor should have assessed these properties lower.”
In addition to filing grievances, some homeowners may also be eligible for a home-improvement exemption, although it does not apply to new homes.
“All they can do at this point is go to a home-improvement exemption and grieve next year,” Gold said, “but it’s still not kicking in until 2019.”
Looking for answers
Decker’s new two-story home sits on a 30-by-60-foot lot, and was assessed at $602,000. But city officials said that because she did not file a grievance, she is paying taxes as if the home were valued at $940,000. Her home, Decker added, is also mistakenly listed as a two-family dwelling, which she believes may have also led to the increase.
“I expected a reasonable increase, but I wasn’t expecting to pay taxes like other homes in Nassau County that actually have property,” she said. “The stress and frustration that everyone experienced trying to get back in their homes … this is just another blow.”
Davis encouraged residents to contact his office, and said that increases would have to be examined individually.
“A lot of people feel better when they receive an explanation about what has happened,” he said.