Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Reassessing The Assessment Of The Assessor

Levinson Challenges Own Assessment Based On "Mathematical Error"

This may not be a case of the chickens coming home to roost (in a hen house that is over-assessed, no less), but the fact that Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson had to challenge the assessment of his own condo, doesn't speak much (or maybe it speaks volumes) for the integrity and accuracy of Nassau's assessment system.

Surely, Harvey Levinson is not alone in filing a challenge to the assessment of his property. Thousands of Nassau County residents -- including this blogger -- "grieve" their assessments annually, some successfully, others, not.

The fact that Harvey's challenge is based on what he himself calls, "a clerical error that raised his apartment's assessment by 75 percent," gives credence to the longstanding argument that the process is flawed, and the Assessor's concession that assessed values are based on a "complex mathematical formula" is reason enough to consider scrapping a system that has proven itself -- through no fault of Mr. Levinson, mind you -- both unfair and inequitable.

While we maintain complete confidence in Harvey Levinson as Assessor, and have no qualms about his filing of a challenge -- as is every property owner's right -- the problem we have is with a system of assessment that is outmoded, cumbersome, and, apparently, so complex that even the folks running the show have trouble figuring out the appropriate values.

For goodness sake. In determining the value of, say, a single-family house, would not, in the realm of reason, actual values based on recent sales of comparable houses in the same neighborhood suffice, if not be more accurate than crunching numbers (whatever numbers they may be) by some complex, incomprehensible empirical formula?

One would think.

Of course, rather than address the underlying problem, and work toward a feasible solution, here we go again with the finger pointing and the political posturing.

Mr. Levinson may well be retiring to Florida in 2009. We wish him only the best. For the rest of us, however, destined to maintain that homestead on Long Island for more than the next two years, there is little solace in knowing that while we can challenge a broken system, there are no real plans in the hopper that look to fix it.

We suppose that leaves Nassau County's homeowners paying more for houses that, on the market, are valued less.

"Pay more, get less." Isn't that what Harvey Levinson objected to in the first place?
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Nassau tax assessor challenges levy on his own condo

Nassau Assessor Harvey Levinson, who vigorously defends the accuracy of the countywide property tax assessment system he oversees, has challenged the assessment on his own Garden City condominium.

In a handwritten grievance signed by him and his wife, Levinson is asking the county's Assessment Review Commission to reduce the value of his fourth-floor apartment in the exclusive Wyndham West complex.

Levinson has requested the $502,080 value set by his office for his two-bedroom unit be reduced to $300,770 -- while other two-bedroom Wyndham apartments are currently for sale at prices ranging from $849,000 to more than $1.2 million, according to the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island.

If approved for the full amount, the reduction is estimated by the county to remove $1,700 from Levinson's $13,000 tax bill for 2009-2010, excluding village taxes.

Levinson, who collects a $72,000 annual state pension for his 27 years as a county prosecutor on top of his $166,300 salary, said he was simply correcting a clerical error that raised his apartment's assessment by 75 percent. He explained that a complex mathematical formula determines condominium values, not comparable sales, which are used to assess single-family homes.

Furthermore, Levinson said, he expects to sell the condominium and move to Florida by the time the first school tax bill is generated in October 2009.

"When this reduction kicks in, I won't be in this piece of property," said Levinson, 68, who predicted he will retire before his term expires in December 2009. "The new owner will get the benefit."

But both Democrats and Republicans yesterday expressed shock that Levinson filed his own grievance in a county that consistently generates the most tax challenges in the state: About 135,000 grievances were filed this year, and about 139,000 were filed last year, officials said.

"Even if he has a technical argument to make, it does not inspire much confidence that the assessor is challenging his own assessment," County Executive Thomas Suozzi said of his fellow Democrat's actions.

Legislative Minority Leader Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) called for the resignation of Levinson, who raised assessments this year despite the weakening real estate market. "At the same time that he's placing all those burdens on the residents of Nassau County, he moves to alleviate and reduce his own tax burden," he said.

Fred Perry, a Dix Hills attorney who challenges assessments on behalf of thousands of Nassau homeowners each year, said Levinson has the right to protest, but should also worry about "an appearance of impropriety" because the Assessment Review Commission works so closely with Levinson's department.

Commission Chairman John Peguillan said Levinson will be treated as any other taxpayer.

Levinson said he would not have challenged his assessment if it wasn't a mathematically based error.

He said state law requires condominiums four stories or higher to be valued at what an investor would pay for the property if run as a rental apartment building. Each unit is assessed at a percentage determined by the builder of the total building value, he said.

Levinson said his office discovered in January that 1,600 condominiums in the county, including his own, were overvalued because their tax burden wasn't taken into account. While the Board of Assessors immediately filed a petition with the review commission to correct the errors, Levinson decided to file on his own.

"The simplest thing for me to do was to have left my value in the list," Levinson said. "It would have gone unnoticed. It wouldn't have opened up this debate. I wanted to be open about this."

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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