Written by CS Levin, firstname.lastname@example.org Wednesday, 06 February 2013 10:08
More than 100,000 Nassau County homeowners challenged their property assessments last year, seeking tax reductions. Were you one of them? If not, should you have been? At a time when real estate values are still down, the good news is that you may be over-assessed and therefore paying more property taxes than you should. The only way to reduce your assessment is by filing a grievance with the Nassau County Assessment Review Commission.
“You have the right to a fair and accurate assessment,” reads the Nassau County Property Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Frustrated with their taxes, each year approximately one third of Nassau’s homeowners challenge their assessments. In essence, they’re arguing that the county has over-estimated the market value of their property, resulting in a higher assessment than comparable properties. In the grievance, they’re seeking a reduction in the assessed value of their property upon which their taxes are based.
For the 2012-2013 tax year, of the 110,849 Nassau homeowners challenging their assessments, 91,235— 82.3 percent—received reductions, according to Darlene Harris, chairperson of the Assessment Review Commission. And the good news, even for those who were rejected, is that their property’s assessed value cannot increase when a grievance is filed (unless a building permit is issued or it’s a new purchase).
If there’s no downside, why don’t 100 percent of Nassau’s homeowners file grievances? Presumably, they believe that the process is too complicated or too time consuming, or they simply don’t know what to do. Let’s change that, right now. It’s not too late to file for the 2014-2015 tax year. The deadline has been extended from March 1 to May 1, due to Hurricane Sandy, so there’s plenty of time. Just do a few minutes of research, and then either fill out the form online or retain an outside firm to handle things.
The process of grieving or appealing an assessment can take quite some time. The tentative assessments for 2014-2015 were just published on January 2. Residents received their assessments in the mail last week. Yet, the tax roll will not become final until April of 2014.
Homeowners who feel overwhelmed by the grievance process don’t have to handle the paperwork themselves. A cottage industry of firms handling tax-reduction protests has grown in recent years. In fact, more than 80 percent of assessment grievances are filed by outside firms or representatives. Specifically, for the 2012-2013 tax year, only 11.1 percent were filed individually and 88.9 percent were filed by 129 separate outside representatives on behalf of Nassau homeowners.
Many of these firms are familiar names since many barrage homeowners’ mailboxes with solicitations. Some are staffed by attorneys. Others are not. Most of these firms will “handle the grievance process from soup to nuts,” according to Paola Orsini, president and owner of Re-Assessment & Evaluation Svc., Inc., in Garden City. They file all of the paperwork, prepare the cases, and handle an appeal, if necessary. The firms, Orsini said, have expertise and “know how to get the maximum reduction.”
Why hire a firm instead of filing the grievance on your own?
“We know how to present and argue the case,” Orsini said. She likened it to cutting your own hair. “You can cut your own hair, but you go to a hairdresser instead.”
According to Mark Miller, an attorney with Maidenbaum Property Tax Reduction Group, LLC, in Cedarhurst, although homeowners do not have to use an attorney to file a grievance, having an attorney helps if legal issues arise, or an appeal is necessary. For instance, Miller said, he had clients who had done work on their home and the county raised their assessment a year too soon. Their claim went all the way through the courts to the Appellate Division, where he successfully challenged the assessment. His firm, comprised of seven attorneys, has been handling tax grievances for more than two decades. According to Miller, his firm files “thousands of grievances” every year and has “a very high success rate.” Like others handling grievances, Miller’s firm works on a contingency fee so that the homeowner doesn’t pay (other than a $30 filing fee if the matter goes to court) unless there is a reduction. Miller said that the “overwhelming majority of cases are resolved before going to court.” The contingency fee for most grievance representatives is between 35 and 50 percent of the first year’s tax saving.
Claire Gangi, president of Empire Tax Reductions in Glenwood Landing, agreed that there is a benefit to having a representative file a grievance. Gangi, who is not an attorney, said that unless homeowners are fully informed, they can make bad decisions and not negotiate to their best advantage. Gangi said that her company, which has also been handling grievances for 20 years, files about 10,000 grievances a year. Last year, they successfully negotiated reductions for 90 percent of their cases in Nassau County, she said.
Before retaining a representative, it’s important to do some research. Start with the firms’ websites, though it’s also smart to check the Better Business Bureau’s website, www. newyork.bbb.org, to see if complaints have been filed against the firm. Because homeowners generally retain these firms by signing a form and mailing it back, they often never meet their representative. And don’t sign with multiple companies, since that can create confusion and delays. Only one representative can have the case heard on behalf of the homeowner.
Many homeowners file challenges year after year. The assessing system is “a moving target,” said Gangi. With the economy and market fluctuating, property values change year to year, so homeowners can get reductions year after year.
“In Nassau, when you are filing a year ahead, you don’t know what will happen to the market, so people file just to protect themselves,” said Orsini. There is no limit to the number of times that a homeowner can file a grievance.
Of more concern, perhaps, is that when your neighbors file grievances, this will cause your assessment to rise. As Randy Yunker, communications director for the Department of Assessment, explained, “assessment is a share of the tax pie. If somebody’s share decreases, others will increase to make up the difference.” Once a community votes on its school budget, the schools are guaranteed that amount of money. If one property owner is paying less, either because he has filed a grievance or is entitled to exemptions, others will need to pay more.
Nassau’s assessment system has been a matter of concern for some time. Upon taking office, County Executive Ed Mangano made it a priority to reform Nassau’s property tax assessment system, which he called “dysfunctional in every way.” On October 25, 2010, he announced a review of what he called “Nassau’s broken and costly property tax assessment system” that “has brought our great county on the brink of bankruptcy.” In many cases, Mangano stated, “the accuracy of the county property assessment was not the fair market value and prior year errors were repeated year after year.” He appointed former Smithtown Assessor Gregory Hild as chairman of a transition team to conduct a review of the Department of Assessment. That review led to a new process aimed at establishing “efficient and equitable treatment of all taxpayers.” Among other things, a new Residential Tax Grievance Negotiation and Settlement Program was implemented and the county was moved from an annual to a four- year cyclical assessment system.
Deputy County Assessor James Davis was appointed acting county assessor in early 2011, and remains in that job, nearly 2 years later. In a recent interview, Davis stressed that the assessment process has improved since he took the reins of the Department of Assessment and that the assessments are now fair. He wants nothing more than to have accurate values, he stated. He has put guidelines in place “to make sure things that went wrong in the past don’t happen again” and uses the latest technology to make sure that values are accurate.
Yet, “assessment can only get better,” Davis admitted, and his department will continue to use whatever technology is available to make the models better. Orsini of Re-Assessment & Evaluation Svcs. agreed that the county has come a long way in fixing the broken assessment system. The county has made “a great start,” she stated, but “this was a problem decades in the making.” It’s not something that can be fixed in two or three years.
“There is absolutely no downside to the homeowner” to contest their assessment, said Gangi. Even Davis admitted that grieving an assessment might be the way to go.
“I would never tell a homeowner who feels their value is too high not to file a grievance,” Davis stated, adding that the county has added a Property Damage Review form on its website to assist residents who want to seek a reduction in their assessment as a result of Hurricane Sandy. The form was also mailed to homeowners last week, along with the Notice of Tentative Assessed Value for 2014/2015.