The Nassau County Department of Assessment continued to be an object of political brinkmanship last week, as Democratic County Executive Laura Curran vetoed the Republican-controlled Legislature’s proposal to make the assessor post elective. And Republican Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello — the leader of the opposition and the speaker of the Legislature — promptly and predictably scheduled a vote to override the veto.
Curran’s reasons for vetoing the measure sounded almost the same as Nicolello’s for favoring it.
“An elected assessor would be pressured to do the popular thing for some residents, instead of the right thing for all residents,” Curran said. Nicolello countered that an elected assessor “will be responsive to the residents, unlike the appointed assessor.”
It’s worth noting here that the assessor’s office was made appointive during the administration of the last Democratic executive, Tom Suozzi, who served from 2002 to 2009 and is now a congressman. He wanted to hire a qualified assessor, not a party loyalist who had come up through the political ranks and won election through gladhanding and advertising gimmickry.
Curran, too, contends that making the position elective would open the office to unqualified candidates.
Arguing about how assessors get their jobs is really pointless. We have had unqualified assessors who were elected and appointed.
The Nassau County Charter requires all assessors, whether elected or appointed, to acquire the necessary credentials within their first three years in the position. James Davis, who served as acting assessor from 2011 to 2018, appointed by then County Executive Ed Mangano, did not meet the qualifications for the post, and he never attended the required classes. That helped set the county on a disastrous course.
The current county comptroller, Democrat Jack Schnirman, recently released an audit of the department for the fiscal years 2014 to 2016, with data dating back to 2010, that made for appalling reading. Under Davis’s watch, the assessor’s office granted billions of dollars in questionable property-tax exemptions, resulting in billions more in potential tax value lost, according to Schnirman.
“With nobody minding the store, vital information was lost, exemptions weren’t fully documented or supported, and failure to address unintended consequences of a state law resulted in millions of dollars of taxes shifted onto other homeowners,” Schnirman wrote in his statement accompanying the audit.
The report cited 9,000 exemptions that were improperly granted, including 90 given to veterans, who, if still living, would be at least 133 years old. (It’s likely that they moved out of their homes or died, but the exemptions remained with the homes, despite new owners.)
Some 688 properties owned by members of the clergy were declared fully exempt. These are usually only partially exempt, and the determination trimmed the county’s property tax base by more than $272 million, according to the report.
And the department’s lax internal security opened the assessment process to questions of potential fraud.
The Department of Assessment is now a shambles. It lost nearly half of its staff during Davis’s tenure and is scrambling frantically under his successor, Curran appointee David Moog, to find qualified replacements.
On top of it all, assessments have not been carried out equitably for decades. Those who grieved their assessments ended up paying less than their fair share, according to the true market value of their properties. And those who did not play the grievance game subsidized those who did.
The Curran administration has taken on the assessment issue head on. Every property has been reassessed over the past year. That’s a lot of homes — 386,000, to be exact. As a result, 52 percent of homeowners will see their property tax bills rise, while 48 percent will see them drop — in many cases, precipitously.
Curran really had no choice but to reassess all properties. Doing nothing could eventually lead to bankruptcy. Over the years, the county has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars to pay property-tax settlements. At some point, that practice will become unsustainable.
Curran’s persistent efforts to bring the property tax rolls into something like a reflection of reality shows tremendous political courage. Despite certain missteps, we should give her and Moog the chance to fix the system. Yes, some taxpayers with grossly deflated valuations will likely pay more. But in the long run, the county might finally create an assessment system that is fairer and more accurate. It would to hard to argue with that outcome.