Written by Tony Brita Friday, 19 November 2010 00:00
My name is Tony Brita. In July, 2008, former County Executive Tom Suozzi appointed me Vice Chairman of the Nassau County Board of Assessors. I served as acting County Assessor when elected assessor Harvey Levinson resigned in November, 2008, and worked in that capacity until voters approved a charter change making the Assessor’s role an appointed position, ostensibly to remove it from politics. After Suozzi appointed Ted Jankowski County Assessor, I stayed on as a Deputy Assessor, reporting directly to Jankowski until I resigned in May, 2010 to return to the private sector.
Observing recent events involving the Department of Assessment, it is obvious to me that Jankowski was not ousted because he made a “mistake.” He was removed because he was a Suozzi appointee who challenged a cabal of entrenched constituencies whose interests were threatened by reform and who wanted it stopped. The Mangano administration has now put individuals on the transition team in charge of the assessment system who are largely responsible for its historic problems, from a recently-publicized glaring error to the appeals backlog affecting 90,000 properties. Mangano fired and scapegoated the most competent assessor Nassau County has had (very possibly dooming genuine reform efforts), while property taxpayers lack the real facts.
Everyone agrees that Nassau County has a substantial property tax and assessment problem. After a national search with which I was intimately involved, the Suozzi administration hired Jankowski, a well-known national and international assessment and property tax expert, to reform the system. As City of Boston Commissioner of Assessing for nine years, Jankowski successfully overhauled a huge, similarly politically-charged mess in the 1980s. The parallels with Nassau County were significant; he was well qualified for the role.
Jankowski soon found Nassau County’s dysfunctional $5.2 billion assessment system multi-layered, byzantine, and opaque – facts obscured by a cynical PR campaign by politicians who caricature and distort the system’s problems for their political ends, and a relentless propaganda onslaught by tax representative firms who profit from the status quo. The Assessment Review Team Mangano assembled earlier this year is chock-full of tax representation industry members who have no incentive to genuinely reform the system because it would undermine their financial interests.
A May, 2009 report, which Jankowski and I wrote, recommended sweeping management and legislative reforms. This first-ever 78-page County report was endorsed by the then-executive director of the New York State Office of Real Property Services. Jankowski started overhauling the Department of Assessment (DOA) – the only department under his direct control of three involved in the process – with plans to overhaul the appeal system. However, Mangano’s administration changed course, announcing instead vacuous executive orders no competent assessing jurisdiction would adopt.
Coverage of Jankowski’s ouster has lacked any political context and has instead parroted politically-motivated fiction, including unattributed and unverified comments, emails, slurs and blame for the errors of others. For example, Newsday erroneously asserted that Jankowski blamed the error Mangano supposedly fired him for on the Suozzi administration. In fact, the error was made in 2008 under Jankowski’s elected predecessor, Harvey Levinson, by one of the DOA’s highest-paid unionized civil servants, a Republican committeeman who for years has been responsible for the status of all exempt properties in the County. It was this individual’s two-year-old error that led to the County building’s recent incorrect billing. This lack of basic quality control was exactly what Jankowski was beginning to address. He wanted to weed out similarly low-performing employees and cut the two-year lag-time between the first Tentative Roll and school bills’ arrival to one year. Ironically, the person responsible for the error now sits on Mangano’s transition team.
Meanwhile, Mangano has charged Gregory Hild, who has not led a revaluation in 26 years (the opposite of industry best practice), with a “top to bottom” review of the system Jankowski and I reviewed exhaustively just last year. Hild managed a tiny office in Smithtown, with one tax class and tax rate. Is he qualified to review Nassau County’s extraordinarily complicated mass appraisal system, with four property classes in each of 52 different school districts and 320 separate taxing jurisdictions?
The assessment system (and the broken appeals process) is Nassau County’s biggest money story. Why don’t reporters “follow the money?” A hard look at the tax certiorari industry’s campaign contributions to legislators, judges and other elected officials would shed much-needed light on the broken system that is bleeding taxpayers dry and has left Nassau County once again in a financially unsustainable position with faltering bond ratings.