Nassau County homeowners can’t catch a break. Just when they thought they had an understanding of what the current court-ordered property tax reassessment was going to cost them, there are county tax increases due to take effect in 2003. Also in January, we will have the first formal look at the reassessment numbers that officials are already admitting reflect systematic flaws in how some properties have been reviewed. All of this means that this year’s tax bills are going to come as a very big shock since taxpayers probably expected to see new assessments coupled with new tax rates. Instead, they will find their old assessments but with higher tax rates.
No one is suggesting we have the ability to go back to the reassessment drawing board, but county property owners have a right to be confused about the process and more so about the results. Virtually every taxpayer received mailings last year that suggested a new tax rate had been established for their property. Some thought the letter was junk mail and trashed it. Others assumed that the price stated would be reflected in the formal tax bill that would follow after the first of the year. Neither was the case.
The reassessment numbers presented in the initial letter, whether up or down for the resident, reflected a tax liability under the 2001 tax levy. Few understand that the tax rate has changed with the new year’s municipal and school budgets. That proposed tax amount you received was an accurate “snapshot” for just that moment in time. Cherish the memory because that number won’t be seen again.
At the core of the confusion lies the simple fact that reassessment may be mandated by law, but its application is far from scientific. So even within the new guidelines, there is room for opinion, appeal and bewilderment. The problem is compounded by Cole Layer Trumble, a consulting company working for the Board of Assessors. They do not understand some of the basic components of Nassau County real estate.
Nassau comprises hundreds of distinct neighborhood areas, not the 75 or so neighborhoods that Cole Layer used. Their executives have admitted some of their errors, but it doesn’t soothe the anger of residents like the Levittown homeowner who found his house assessed as waterfront because he lives next to a sump, or the Lynbrook commercial property owner who found his taxes based on twice the income he collects from his tenants.
Not surprisingly, the issue has become a political lightning rod. The county executive, Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, has responded by appointing a committee to look into the process, suggesting that the execution of the reassessment is flawed. The county assessor, Charles O’Shea, a Republican, claims that the Democrats have cut his budget, taking away the dollars he needs to process 420,000 newly revalued properties and thereby sabotaging his work.
But Mr. O’Shea is also making his own mistakes. His response to Cole Layer’s errors on issues such as “waterfront property” in Levittown is so defensive that their mistakes become his.
Profoundly troubling is the fact that Cole Layer Trumble is going to change hundreds of assessments based on mistakes they have found, both increases and decreases, without benefit of hearings. Only the few thousand taxpayers who actually attended hearings or had their initial revaluation changed will receive notice of their new assessments. For the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of commercial and residential taxpayers, their only notice of the new assessment was that long-forgotten letter disregarded almost as soon as it was delivered. The assessor is not planning to send out notices of any new assessments.
The one saving grace in all this reassessment confusion is that every taxpayer can file a formal complaint in January to have their new assessment reviewed.
It would be wise for politicians on both sides of the aisle to understand that the voter has neither the pocketbook nor the patience for incompetence in handling the reassessment issue. If it appears that political expedience is edging out an honest, ethically and skilled enforcement of reassessment, there will be a firestorm that will sweep down on all those involved, indifferent to party labels or the power of incumbency.