With a state lawsuit against the county set to begin and after more than $775 million has been paid to homeowners grieving their land assessments, County Democrats made an initial step earlier this week to address a property assessment system that has been called "archaic" and "inequitable."
In a press conference held in the office of Judy Jacobs, presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, the Democratic delegation cited the county's assessment program as "a leading factor" contributing to the decline of the county's fiscal stability, which is embodied in a projected structural budget deficit of more than $150 million.
Each Democratic legislator signed off on a written pledge to make county reassessment the primary target of their fiscal recovery plan. According to the document, 147,000 grievances have been filed against the county by homeowners over the last ten years. Of these filed grievances the county has lost 90 percent of them, resulting in the payment of more than $775 million during that span.
"The current antiquated reassessment system is the single greatest obstacle facing the long-term fiscal stability of this county," said Jacobs in a release distributed prior to the press conference.
The Democratic pledge states that they want to convert the system to a fair market value, streamline the grievance process, establish periodic revaluation of all properties, and retain all current exemptions. It is hoped that these "principles" will help guide the reassessment process.
Legislator Peter Schmitt, Republican minority leader, stated in an interview earlier this week that the problem does not exist with the assessment system but the grievance process in which homeowners can contest "unfair" property assessments. He cited that the county takes only 19 cents of each tax dollar collected, yet is responsible for the entire dollar when it is refunded to a property owner. He fears that if the Legislature moves too quickly to change to a fair market value of properties, inequities will be created.
"I think we have to be very careful that we do not negatively impact the value of people's homes," said Schmitt. "If some plan is put on the table to "fix" the assessment system and that plan is going to have the result of raising the property taxes in Massapequa or Bethpage then I am not voting for it."
It has long been alleged the present assessment system, which uses 1938 building costs and land values in computing assessed property value, discriminates against primarily low-income, minority homeowners. A lawsuit is presently being brought against the county in the State courts charging the county for using an assessment system that over assesses the property value of its minority population.
Concerns that the courts could dictate the parameters of a county-wide reassessment was stated as one of the reasons for the Democratic delegation's decision to speak out and let it be known they are taking a proactive approach in addressing the situation.
"Part of the reason we did this today was because we are sending a message to the courts that we are prepared to do this," said Legislator Lisanne Altman, 10th district. "I am hoping they [courts] will hold off. The last thing that we want is for the courts to impose a settlement. They are not going to be looking at equity, they are not going to be looking at reason, they are just going to slam it on us."
More than being just a race issue, Democrats also labeled the assessment system as an obstacle that is preventing the county from correcting its structural deficit. According to Jacobs, the county has had to borrow more than $1 billion over the past ten years to maintain the current assessment system, and annual interest payments on that money are adding to the ballooning county deficit.
"This current system is costing every single resident in the county. We are paying over $100 million a year in debt service and when we look at the structural problems in the county this is a major portion of that problem," said Legislator Brian Muellers, 18th district, during the press conference. "Everyone in the county is going to benefit, whether you are in Upper Brookville or you are in Hempstead or Roosevelt. Everyone in the entire county is going to benefit from the reassessment."
Despite the legislative majority's pledge, definitive legislation addressing the issue has yet to be introduced. Jacobs warned that the process to reassess property values in the county will not be a quick process, but she is calling on County Assessor Charles O'Shea to complete his Assessment Report and submit it to the Legislature by March 1.
"I think it is very important for us to do the proper analysis, to make sure that the program that we come up with is equitable and fair and addresses the hardships in the individual communities," said Jacobs. "We do not want a knee jerk reaction to coming up with a plan that we have not given the proper thought to."
A spokesperson from the Assessors Office stated that O'Shea is currently reviewing the effects reassessment would have on each of the 415,000 parcels in the county. The report will not be completed by March 1, but they hope to have some conclusions completed by the end of the year.