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From the Desk of Dr. Charles Murphy: November 5, 2010

On Saturday, Oct. 30 Nassau County legislature adopted the 2011 budget at a special session. This new budget shifts the responsibility of millions of dollars of costs from Nassau County to local municipalities, including school districts. Most notably, Nassau County ended the “guarantee” where the county would be responsible for all taxes billed incorrectly because of the property assessment mistakes. In the future, if there is a residential or commercial assessment error, the school district would now be responsible for the refund. This is particularly troublesome since property tax assessment system is riddled with problems. In fact, two weeks ago the Nassau County Assessor was fired for a million dollar mistake in Garden City. Under the new law, the school district would be responsible for an error like this, not Nassau County. If this is the way assessments are handled when the county is liable, one can only imagine with great fear what will happen when they bear no responsibility for its blunders.

During the budget hearings, local school officials demanded that Nassau County provide the certiorari impact for each school district. The county was unable to share this information because it did not exist. Eleven lawmakers voted for this measure without knowing the true impact on the local school districts, and more importantly, property taxpayers. Although the county was unable to share this information, Dr. William Johnson, Rockville Centre Superintendent, provided estimates for all Nassau County schools based on New York State Education Department data. For Island Trees, the residential and commercial refunds total approximately $600,000 per year – this would be a new line added to our budget, approximately 1.6 percent on the tax levy.

In truth, these refunds fluctuate year-to-year depending upon the accuracy of the Nassau County assessments - some years it could be higher and in others lower. In preparation for this new responsibility, school districts have been told we will need to add a tax certiorari reserve to deal with the assessment variations. This reserve would be available in the event of an assessment refund in excess of the annual budgeted amount. A commercial award could easily drain a budget line and a tax certiorari reserve would offset a costly award. Unfortunately, to fund such a reserve will be a huge financial burden to the community. We wish the Nassau County legislators considered this before passing this responsibility onto local school districts.

At present, Nassau County has an entire department handling all of the property assessment appeals countywide. School districts are not structured to deal with assessment challenges. To contest all of these residential and commercial assessment petitions, school districts will need to hire attorneys to represent the districts’ interests. After all, we cannot afford to lose too many of these decisions, especially with the significant commercial property revenue produced along Hempstead Turnpike. From this, we expect our legal fees to increase by $150,000.

In closing, the fact that the Nassau County legislature approved this late Saturday night with very few in the public present speaks volumes. The certiorari burden adds another enormous obstacle for Island Trees school community to overcome. Given the unpromising situation, we can only hope the county is able to straighten out the issues with the Department of Assessment before school districts are saddled with this misfortune.