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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Valuations Made Of Magic

To finalize Nassau County’s 2013 real property tax roll, assessment grievances were filed by owners of 30.1 percent of the county’s 369,827 residential properties, more than triple what used to be the typical grievance rate not many years ago. In some neighborhoods, significantly more than half of property owners have been filing grievances in the last few years, many urged on by elected officials and aggressive consulting firms. So that successful grievances don’t add to the county’s crippling refund backlog, last year county officials settled more than three-quarters of all grievances. This unprecedented tax roll churn isn’t a good thing. It speeds the decoupling of values assessed on a property and the actual tax bill.  

County Executive Ed Mangano, unable to contain himself, ordered a freeze in assessment raises. I guess that’s supposed to show that he hates tax increases, or something. Unfortunately, there are currently three distinct real estate markets in Nassau County (holding up, not holding up and disaster aftermath) and property values are not moving at the same rates. Gimmicks make imbalances worse and lower the accountability that’s crucial to public confidence in the tax system. We may as well set assessments by lottery or by spinning a wheel, because we’re dropping all pretense that the property tax rolls reflect objective reality, and not merely the act of filing paperwork.

Homeowners are being driven to file assessment appeals if only to defend against neighbors who file and might luck out with a sympathetic settlement official. Tens of thousands of potential new customers are in play, and if you’re a senior in the right neighborhood who hasn’t yet filed (this year’s appeals deadline is May 1), you’re probably receiving hard-hitting solicitations almost every day. Be careful. Read the agreement. A lot of people got lower assessments for 2013, opened the envelope to find actual on-the-bill savings of almost nothing, and then received a consultant’s bill for $500 or $1,000. Some of these companies may not have even done anything. Did they play any role in getting the assessment lowered, or merely file hundreds and even thousands of those appeals authorizations and later match up the addresses to the revised tax rolls?

A local law, a Property Taxpayers Bill of Rights, should make easily available some kind of Assessment Review Commission confirmation that the hired gun actually did something. If a representative didn’t at least speak or correspond with ARC, they don’t deserve a percentage of any “savings.”

Most people don’t really need those firms. But many have limited access or affinity to the Internet, or a general fear of paperwork or of dealing with the government. They are willing to pay to not deal with it. As part of the state budget agreement, those eligible for STAR savings on their school taxes will have to refile the paperwork. Some people aren’t going to do that. Solutions fix things. Gimmicks don’t.

That “tax cap” didn’t fix anything. Didn’t lower a single tax bill, or correct any inequities. It did mess with the minds of taxpayers who received 2012 tax bills way above what they expected. That’s frequently happened in the past, but last year’s surprises were serious, and widespread. There’s every indication that this will happen again and again, as entropy overtakes the system.

The estimated 2014 tax rolls show assessed property valuations across Nassau County going down about one percent, after going up one percent last year. Valuations between the towns, cities, school districts and even some adjacent neighborhoods fluctuated more. Don’t ask why. It’s now mostly a matter of faith. And of paperwork.

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