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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Tax Breakdown

It was 75 years ago this week, on March 25th, 1938, that the first Nassau County real property assessment men started fanning out to record and evaluate every parcel of land and more than 100,000 buildings then standing. The new 1938 county charter eliminated the five town and city assessment systems and replaced them with one county board, with an elected chairman. The first office, located about 300 feet from the front office of these newspapers on Second Street in Mineola, had gone operational only on March 7th, and 55 men hit the streets less than three weeks later.

Assessments were seriously out of whack between and within the towns and cities. For years, local assessors had avoided expensive tax lawsuits and played politics by lowering assessments too much on thousands of properties. This made it more expensive to sell county, town and district bonds. It was important to the new county government’s credit that it be able to present an accurate picture of its considerable taxable assets. Though total reassessment was wildly unpopular at first, it was sold to the public by elected officials as a scientific reform that would restore fairness to a system imploding under the strain of a rapidly changing real estate market.

That first March morning, some of the assessment men headed up Roslyn Road to parts of Mineola, Manhasset and Munsey Park and some headed down to a few of the South Shore communities. Within a few days, they were concentrated in the area between Old Country Road and the Hempstead-Jamaica Turnpike, including a piece of Garden City. By early April, they were moving through Freeport, Baldwin and Rockville Centre.

An entirely new assessment system was created. Seeking a fixed reference point from which a sound and true value could be determined for every property, county leaders picked the replacement value of a property based on construction costs, with some adjustments allowed for physical depreciation and other factors.

They had to establish the blocks and lots system that still appears on your tax bills. Scale drawings of every parcel were made on detailed data cards, which included expert physical descriptions made by experienced construction men.

And in one year, almost to the day, they finished the whole thing, including the initial assessment appeals. There were thousands of changes, many of them major. The total assessed valuation in the county went up more than 20 percent. The assessed valuations on a few properties tripled or quadrupled, while some assessments were lowered. Yet the process worked well enough that there were only 5,000 appeals, only one in ten of which led to tax certiorari lawsuits, and many of those were settled.

Nassau County had a model real property tax assessment system. For maybe a year. Fixed reference points lose their connection to reality in a modern, dynamic economy. The Long Island real estate market was constantly changing. In 1938, houses in many new developments cost $2,500 to $3,500. Twenty years later, typical prices were 10 times higher. That fixed point failed us, over and over, for more than half a century. And what came next, just over half a decade ago, has failed us even worse and even faster.

The biggest thing the old system had going for it was some sense of stability, of having some idea of what was coming in the next tax bill before the envelope was opened. No more.

Now, on this Diamond Anniversary, Nassau County’s real property system is cracking under unprecedented multiple pressures. If we’re lucky, if we put on our grown-up long pants and get serious, we may still be able to steer away from the Event Horizon.

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