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On Blenders and Tax Assessments

The Nassau County Department of Assessment could learn a lot from Macy’s if they handled tax grievances the way the retailer deals with broken blenders. After all, in both instances we’re dealing with unhappy customers (taxpayers) who are frustrated with a defective product and want satisfaction. Unfortunately, the assessment department has never really considered those who have overpaid taxes as a result of assessment errors as aggrieved customers. Indeed, a recent report by the county assessor claimed that the hemorrhaging assessment system was not broken even while a recent Newsday article [“Millions in Refunds in Nassau”] observed that Nassau has paid out half a billion dollars in refunds between 2003 and ’08.

Back to my blender experience. A few years ago, I purchased one of these countertop appliances at Macy’s only to find out it didn’t work when I got it home.  Admittedly in a cranky mood, I returned to the department store ready to fight for a refund on my defective blender.  In true testament to sound customer service, a store clerk greeted me upon my return with a smile. And, after I explained what had happened, she apologized and cheerfully refunded my money. What the Macy’s representative did was not some mysterious retail strategy. Rather, it was common courtesy and emblematic of the right way to treat customers or anyone who has been sold a defective product (i.e., an erroneous assessment).

Unlike the Macy’s model for dealing with people who want satisfaction in seeking refunds for defective products (assessments in error), Nassau County has a slightly different approach … “Stop appealing your property tax assessments. That’s the public service message courtesy of Thaddeus Jankowski, Nassau County’s first appointed assessor,” [see Newsday column – “Residents Just Want to Know Tax System Works,” July 14, 2009]. What the county assessor has done is to add insult to injury by claiming his product isn’t broken, telling taxpayers that they shouldn’t challenge their assessments and attacking officials (including the town receiver of taxes and county legislators) for informing residents of their right to challenge an assessment if they believe it is wrong.

At the core of the problem with the assessor’s logic in blaming those who challenge their assessments for the staggering payouts on tax challenges is the fact that Nassau only pays an award if the property owner is over-assessed. Therefore, the $90 million in annual tax grievance refunds that Nassau pays out is based on the county’s errors. Consider the audacity of telling taxpayers not to seek redress for county mistakes that result in an overpayment of taxes.  You have to say this for Tax Assessor Jankowski – he has chutzpah!

Don’t you think if Macy’s was paying out $90 million per year in refunds for broken blenders they would have fixed the problem by now? Carrying forward reductions from one year to the next instead of immediately increasing assessments is something many in the tax grievance industry suggest as a possible remedy to the problem. Freezing assessments for a predetermined number of years (three to five years) has also been recommended as a possible mechanism to allow challenges to level off and provide an opportunity for assessment challenge adjustments to catch up with assessment department updates/revaluations. Finally, training county employees on how to actually operate a computer system for which the county has paid $50 million would be a good first step.

While I appreciate the difficulty of the tax assessor’s job, I think most residents will agree with me when I say that half a billion dollars in errors is enough. What’s more, fixing a broken assessment system should rely on productive and well-reasoned remedies, rather than blaming those who have been over-assessed for challenging their assessment.

Given the county assessor’s peculiar approach to customer service, Nassau property owners have to ask themselves, “Would you buy a blender from this man?”