Monday, May 18, 2009

Reassessing The Assessment Under Nassau's New Assessor

What's Broken Is Still Broken, And There's Not A Fix In Sight

Challenges abound. Refunds, years in the paying. Lag time between actual assessment and property tax due still years apart.

So, what else is new?

For one thing, the Nassau County Assessor, Thaddeus J. Jankowski, Jr.

And that's about all that has changed.

Tax rates? Still rising.

Spending? Through the stratosphere.

Did we ever say, "It's not the assessment" that's responsible for skyrocketing property taxes on Long Island?

Of course we have. Time and time again, going on five years now.

Then again, easier to point a finger, find a scape goat, and blame processes and procedures, rather than to grab the bull by the horns (as we continue to watch what comes out the bull's other end) than it is to cut, consolidate, and eliminate.

No, it's not the assessment, as afoul of logic and reason as that system certainly is.

It is the myopic vision of those who see the solution to every problem as increased spending of the taxpayers' dime (if only it was but a dime), bigger being better, and more rather than less as the panacea to everything from garbage collection (as in the fiefdoms familiarly known as sanitary districts) to educating our children (as in 127 separate school districts on Long Island alone).

Blame the Assessor?

Sure, why not? But while you're at it, blame the other elected officials, from State Legislators on down, who spend our money with abandon, raising the property tax rates through the roof, even as that roof collapses on top of us!
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From The New York Times:

For Nassau, Assessments Still a Stubborn Issue


A DECADE ago, problems with Nassau’s property tax assessment system nearly bankrupted the county. Officials have been trying to fix it ever since.

Comprehensive reform was supposed to be completed by now, Nassau officials said, but they concede that it is not. Despite a countywide reassessment in 2003, property owners continue to file about 130,000 challenges a year. Nassau’s assessment court cases total more than in the rest of the state combined.

To settle such claims, the county is paying about $85 million this year for property tax refunds — most of it for taxes that went to school districts and other local governments, not the county. The state agency overseeing Nassau’s finances has rebuked it for borrowing $35 million of the total.

“It’s imperative that we fix this problem once and for all,” County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi, who was elected eight years ago vowing to repair county finances, said in an interview. “We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet. I’m happy with the progress we’ve made on the residential property, and disappointed with the progress on commercial property.”

Commercial cases account for 83 percent of refunds.

In a renewed effort, this year Mr. Suozzi appointed a new county assessor, Thaddeus J. Jankowski Jr., to succeed the previous assessment chairman, Harvey Levinson, who was elected. The old system of having an appointed Board of Assessors headed by a chairman elected by the voters ended last year.

Mr. Jankowski, who served in a similar position in Boston, said he sympathizes with people confused by Nassau’s assessments.

“I’ve asked all kinds of experts — lawyers and officials — if they can explain to me in 20 minutes or less how the system works,” he said. “So far, I haven’t found a single one.”

He is drafting changes to simplify the process, which is markedly different from the one in Suffolk, where the 10 towns individually set the assessments, not the county.

Nassau’s system is also under attack in State Supreme Court in a lawsuit from County Legislator Roger H. Corbin. He contends that when property owners win assessment reductions, the county should stop its practice of paying the refunds for excess taxes that school districts and other governments collected.

“It’s not fair, and it’s illegal,” said Mr. Corbin, who contends that the county has no authority to pay those refunds. The system hurts homeowners in districts with little commercial property because their county taxes help pay refunds for excess taxes collected by other districts with a large commercial base, he said.

The county attorney, Lorna B. Goodman, sides with the suit. “The law is what Mr. Corbin said it is,” she said.

But school districts oppose the suit, saying they have no control over assessments and cannot afford refunds. One of their lawyers, Gregory J. Guercio, said, “The county should pay for its own mistakes.”

Nassau’s assessments, based partly on 1938 construction costs before materials like wallboard and vinyl siding, hobbled along for decades. Then the system spun out of control in the 1990s, overwhelmed by challenges. Court cases dragged on for years, running up huge retroactive refunds. Eventually, refunds of nearly $2 billion were incurred.

To pay, the county borrowed so much that Nassau had the highest per capita county debt in the state. Nassau’s credit rating sank, and the county was forced to seek a state bailout. The state agreed but created the Nassau Interim Finance Authority for oversight.

The fiscal turmoil exacted a political price, too. After decades of Republican dominance, the Democrats won a majority in the County Legislature in 1999 and elected Mr. Suozzi in 2001.

Mr. Suozzi has been widely praised for reducing the county work force and other costs, balancing the budget, reducing debt and raising the credit rating. But assessment issues proved stubborn.

He supported a general revaluation, ordered by a court because of racial disparities.

He tried to expedite challenges, correcting assessments quickly to avoid retroactive refunds. He planned to pay off the old case backlog and pay new refunds from current revenue instead of borrowing. He had hoped to do this by the end of his first term in 2005, but the efforts were incomplete.

“An ‘F’ across the board — they did not do any of the above,” said the Legislature’s Republican minority leader, Peter J. Schmitt. He has called for an assessment freeze. “We have a backlog of grievances, and we’ve returned to borrowing. It’s terrible.”

Renewed borrowing also drew the ire of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which last fall stated its “unanimous and unequivocal” opposition. Borrowing “was one of if not the pre-eminent reason for the original fiscal crisis of Nassau County, which led to the creation of Nifa by the state,” the agency said. “We cannot begin down that road again. Nifa cannot endorse a fiscal policy that it was created, in part, to end.”

Mr. Suozzi said he had made major progress, including nearly doubling the assessment staff to 252 from 130, correcting glitches in the computerized reassessment and paying off a record $251 million in refunds in 2005.

Mr. Suozzi attributed discontent over assessments to the old reputation of faulty valuations; high taxes — about $10,000 year for a typical homeowner; Republican campaign advertisements against assessments; and firms specializing in filing grievances that foster the notion of overassessment. The firms seek fees for such cases.

Ten companies widely solicit owners and account for 80 percent of residential assessment-grievance cases, Mr. Jankowski said. “Somebody remarked to me they got 12 different mailings to be signed up as a client,” he said. “People are being told their assessments are too high — even before they get their assessments.”

Owners of 46,471 properties filed for each of the last four years — even though 78 percent never won reductions, Mr. Jankowski said.

Lawyers handling challenges give the county mixed grades.

“They’ve made an attempt to keep the assessment rolls up to date, which didn’t happen before,” said Donald F. Leistman, who specializes in commercial cases. The process has accelerated and the backlog has dwindled, but assessors often ignore past reductions in setting new values, he said.

Fred N. Perry, a leading lawyer in residential cases, voiced a similar complaint. “They don’t honor court-ordered reductions,” he said, “and people in my field are continually scratching our heads.” He said the county’s Assessment Review Commission “has been getting up to speed in the last two years, but they’re not perfect.”

The county comptroller, Howard S. Weitzman, said Nassau had made big strides in resolving assessment issues, “but it may be that the goals were too optimistic.”

“By this time we had hoped assessments would not be a problem,” he said, “but it’s a work in progress.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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