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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Nassau Assessment Mess: Spin-Off Isn’t The Answer

Giving up is not “reform.” County Executive Ed Mangano’s proposal to transfer property assessment from the county to the towns might possibly speed up assessment decisions by replacing one large and overwhelmed bureaucracy with several somewhat smaller ones. It will likely recreate problems that were major motivations in creating our highly centralized county government 75 years ago.

The 1938 county charter merged the town Boards of Assessors and the County Board of Equalization, ending three decades of complaints, lawsuits and hard feelings about the lack of specific, uniform levels of property assessments between the towns. In a tax system screaming out for simplification, clarification and a sense of certainty, spinning off assessments to the towns will reintroduce “equalization” as an annual issue. Tens of thousands of residents are still trying to figure out why their assessment went down but their tax bill still went up. The division of taxes heading up the tax food chain in an equitable manner is the most complex subject in local government, and it’s all going to make people very sad, particularly in villages and school districts that are split between townships.

It’s true that Nassau is one of only two New York county governments that do property assessing (the other is Tompkins, which includes Ithaca), but that fact only tells part of the story. New York has 62 “Coordinated Assessing Programs” in which 141 towns and cities share assessors and critical assessment operations and policies. About half of the state’s towns and cities share tax assessors in some arrangement. We’ve all heard a million politicians say they want to “run government like a business.” Businesses feel pressure to merge, consolidate and streamline. The assessment spin-off proposal replicates and duplicates.

For decades, good government groups strongly supported county assessments for the suburbanizing counties, only to be thwarted by established political interests. “Considerable concern was felt over the lack of county-wide assessments…” says a 1956 League of Women Voters report on a proposed Suffolk County charter. This is old stuff.

The oddest assertion about a spin-off of the assessment system is that town assessors would “know” the neighborhoods better. Something like that.

Zillow, Trulia, Yahoo!, Redfin, Realtor and dozens of other web sites can pull up globs of detailed information on any property, from recent nearby sales to opinions on the quality of local schools. I have a phone app that pulls up Census and demographic data down to the block level, with aerial photos. Any other subjective information that might be “known” by an assessor probably shouldn’t be used in making assessments.

This is a related quote by Mr. Mangano (Newsday, Feb. 18): “Historically, our research shows smaller assessment jurisdictions do a better, more accurate job on assessments.”

That statement is true only if you consider not owing hundreds of millions of dollars in property tax judgments to be “more accurate.” It’s also true in the case of very small, very homogeneous communities in which property values change almost uniformly. But would it be true for Nassau County?

The smallest of our towns, North Hempstead, contains 80,000 property parcels, which dwarfs all but nine of the 1,128 counties, towns, cities and villages in New York that currently make property assessments. Eighty-two percent of the towns and cities that perform assessments have fewer than 5,000 parcels, about the number in one of Nassau County’s small school districts. Unless we want perhaps 276 assessment districts, one for each Census Tract in this county, we’re still going to have to figure out how to compare wildly differing neighborhoods and property value situations, and you’re going to have wildly unfair or uncertain assessments.

Shift around assessors and rearrange deck chairs all you want. It won’t stop the meltdown. Let’s stop defending an indefensible tax system.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net