Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who Will Assess The Next Assessor?

To Elect Or Appoint? That Is The Question!

Next Tuesday, November 4th, Nassau County residents will go to the polls to elect a president, members of Congress, and State Legislators, among sundry other office holders, from judges to town council members.

Also on the ballot is a Referendum which, if passed, would replace the now-elected (for a 6-year term) Chairman of the County Board of Assessors (commonly known and often misidentified as “the Assessor”) with an appointed (for a 3-year term) Assessor, hand-chosen by the County Executive, and confirmed by the Nassau County Legislature.

The theory behind the Referendum – or at least so much of the thought process as is messaged to the public – is that an appointed Assessor depoliticizes the office, permitting this overseer of the assessment process (as sordid as it is) to do his or her job without having to engage in the customary, and, when it comes to property taxes, always derisive, electioneering.

Opponents of the Assessor-by-appointment argue, with more than nominal merit, that removing the public – whose very property is being taxed through the Assessor’s office – from the equation, chips away at John Q’s right to redress tax grievances, if for no other reason than the Assessor, no longer subject to the whim of the popular vote, would become less responsive to public representation [read as, “We’re being property-taxed to death”], and wholly beholden to the one making the appointment [read as, the Nassau County Executive]. Then again, taxation without representation has become little more than mere cliché, hasn’t it?

Those who favor appointment of the Assessor over election say that not only will the position become less political, but with the elimination of the Board of Assessors, there would be an annual cost-saving of some $250,000. [We’ll never see a penny of that, of course, but, somewhere, the books will reflect – and the County Exec will boast – a savings to the taxpayers.]

Frankly – and we’ve said this before – its not the Assessor that’s the problem, or even how he lands in office. It’s the assessment.

With a complex and convoluted process for calculating the assessment that makes the State’s maze of school aid formulae look like a game of tiddly-winks, we’ve ended up with a system that, at best, distorts home values, and, at worst, systematically robs homeowners of their ability to live in their own homes.

“Fair” is not a word that comes to mind when one discusses the property tax or its assessment, the onerous burden placed squarely upon the shoulders of homeowners, including those who, having bought into the American dream for less than they now pay every year in property taxes, are being taxed into the poorhouse (where at least they’d get “a cot and 3 hot”).

We talk about scraping the assessment system, perhaps in favor of a more equitable local income tax (Shhh. Don’t say that. Someone may accuse us of wanting to “spread the wealth”). We have even had State commissions and local study groups visit the issue, and its component parts, be they related to local government “efficiency” (gag us with a spoon) or a property tax “cap” (not a reduction; just a cap), with reports that praise the virtues of cost-cutting and consolidation, all the while urging across-the-board “reform.” [We suggest the Governor empanel a Blue Ribbon commission to study the meaning of the word “reform.” Then watch for a final report to which all conformist non-reformers can sign on to!]

But we digress. What were we talking about again? Oh yeah. The Referendum.

Whether appointing is any less – or more – political than electing is one for the ages. Are appointed judges, for instance, less political than elected judges? Or is it just the opposite?

And where that appointment must be confirmed by one of the most politicized and polarized bodies in New York, the Nassau County Legislature, could the outcome be characterized as anything but political?

What we are looking for, we are reminded, is transparency and, above all, accountability, from those who govern us, right? Or does the mere appearance of transparency and accountability suffice?

True, the electorate has been dumbed-down over the years, falling prey to campaign small talk that labels, libels, and contorts, but even Joe-The-Plumber can figure out that, in a democracy, elected trumps appointed – and where we elect the wrong person for the job, its our own fault, not the product of a back-room deal or the machinations of a legislature that bickers over minutia and lets die in committee the big stuff.

As you may recall, these guys couldn’t even agree on the appointment of a Poet Laureate for Nassau County. Perhaps, next time around, we should simply elect one!
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From the
League of Women Voters of Nassau County:

Making the Nassau County Assessor an Appointed Position with
Educational and Professional Qualifications Form of Referendum:

SHALL NASSAU COUNTY LOCAL LAW NO. 7 -2008, ENTITLED "A Local Law to amend the County Government Law, in relation to the organization of the Department of Assessment and the appointment and duties of the Assessor," abolishing the County Board of Assessors and replacing the county-wide elected Chair of the Board of Assessors with an Assessor, who would be appointed by the County Executive, subject to confirmation by the County Legislature, for a term of three years and who would be required to meet standards of education and professional experience. BE APPROVED?

Proposed Abstract
This referendum seeks voter approval of a local law to amend the Nassau County Charter, in relation to the organization of the Department of Assessment and the appointment and duties of the Assessor.

The law brings Nassau County in line with most other jurisdictions throughout the State by providing for a single appointed professional County Assessor to serve as the head of the County Department of Assessment. The Charter amendment would abolish the County Board of Assessors and replace the county-wide elected Chair of the Board of Assessors with an Assessor, appointed to a three year term of office by the County Executive, subject to confirmation by the County Legislature, and required to meet professional standards of education and experience and to obtain certification as a New York State certified assessor within three years of beginning his or her initial term of office.

In addition, the proposed law amends former Charter § 607 (entitled "Correction of roll: extension of taxes") to delete obsolete language that provided for the hearing of complaints from property owners. Since the provision is inconsistent with subsequently enacted sections of State law, it has not been used for many years.

The law would become effective on January 1, 2009.

Those who favor the referendum say it will take politics out of the Assessor’s position. There would no longer be a need for the candidate to raise money and run a political campaign, and the Assessor would not be identified with a particular party. The Assessor would have to meet professional educational and experiential requirements, thereby assuring knowledge and experience with the job. This referendum would bring Nassau County in conformity with most of the rest of the counties, 85% of which have professional Assessors.

Those against the referendum say that it robs Nassau County residents of their constitutional right of representation and their right to vote for a policy-making government official. They say that it would effectively eliminate the people’s choice and hand it over to the County Executive; that this law quashes the voices of all 1.3 million Nassau County residents. The key factor is accountability. We should leave the choice in the hands of the taxpaying voters, who should retain their right to select and elect the County Tax Assessor.

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