Written by John Owens, firstname.lastname@example.org Thursday, 31 October 2013 00:00
Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano visited our office last week at the invitation of the editors. We regularly conduct these round-tables with candidates to better know them and their views on the issues. His Democrat opponent, Tom Suozzi, got the treatment months ago, when he announced his candidacy.
Mangano began by running through a litany of his achievements over the past four years — not raising taxes, cutting the number of county employees, attracting businesses to Nassau, getting the plan for the new Coliseum underway, leading post-Sandy rebuilding efforts, and on and on.
Then someone said “assessments.”
The usual political patter stopped. Mangano took a deep breath and pulled out a pen.
“Okay,” he said, “this is something people need to understand....”
He commenced explaining assessments, grievances, tax rates and total revenue raised with a diagram that was simple, but still had columns and numbers and arrows.
“Oh, boy,” I thought.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice had been by the day before, and in her hour with the editors, she covered topics ranging from jailing violent felons to cracking down on DWI to the treatment of young offenders. She even discussed human trafficking. And she never needed a diagram. But then, Rice doesn’t have to deal with something as complex, confusing and sensitive as the county assessment system and school taxes.
Mangano explained and diagrammed for the editors not so that we could understand, but in the hope that we could make the system and his efforts to untangle the tangle that centers around the County Assessor’s Office easily grasped by the electorate.
Unfortunately, we live in a sound-bite political atmosphere where detailed explanations — even simple diagrams — are too much. Instead, for the most part we get claims and charges that are barely full sentences. “He raised taxes.” “He is a compulsive borrower.” “He gave himself a raise.” “He mismanages.”
If you can correctly match the claims and charges with the candidates, you have been paying much more attention to this election than most people. And you probably understand the assessment issue better than most.
In simplest terms (I will try to do this without a diagram), the county assesses your property based on its market value. Of course, assessments really are just estimates, and taxpayers can appeal their assessments, claiming the estimate is off, or other factors have come into play. In the wake of Sandy, as well as a real estate market that hasn’t fully recovered from 2007 highs, many Nassau taxpayers have appealed their assessments, and do so year after year. In fact, Mangano has encouraged property owners to appeal. He says he wants the assessment to reflect reality, and nearly 90 percent of all grievances lead to a lower assessment.
Now this is where it gets tricky...
When school tax time comes around, the school district has a specific amount of revenue to raise. Each property owner pays a share based on his or her property’s assessed value. The tax rate — how much you pay per $1,000 of assessed valuation — is determined by dividing the total assessed value of the school district by the total revenue to be raised. With many people appealing their assessments, the total value in the school district falls, which means the tax rate rises. Those who didn’t appeal their assessments now must make up the revenue lost by those who did successfully appeal. And so, while some people feel they are getting a fair shake (those who successfully appealed), others (who didn’t lower their assessments) may believe they are getting the shaft. (Hence encouraging taxpayers to challenge their assessments.)
To keep the county’s liability for over-payments as low as possible, Mangano has pushed to get assessment grievances settled before tax bills go out. But still, a backlog of refunds led the county to borrow in order to pay them.
Suozzi, of course, hammers Mangano for these settlements, saying that yearly assessment challenges benefit tax lawyers far more than taxpayers, and has led to soaring tax rates.
Mangano is quick to point out that while the county determines your assessment, it does not determine your school taxes.
Also, it is important to distinguish between higher tax rates and higher taxes, and recognize that one does not necessarily lead to the other. In fact, despite a higher tax rate, your taxes might be lower, thanks to a lower assessment.
The truth, like the issue itself, is complicated. And now, in the final days of what has been a sound-bite campaign, it is important for voters to sit still for the full explanation.