A New York State Supreme Court judge recently ruled that a lawsuit filed by a group of Nassau residents against the county, its Department of Assessment (DOA) and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran over the countywide property reassessment process may move forward as a class action.
The suit, filed by Port Washington resident and real estate lawyer Eric Berliner at the end of April 2019, contends the formula the county uses to assess the value of residential properties is overly vague in a way that deprives homeowners of information they need to fairly grieve their assessments. The court ruled that the suit impacted enough people in the county that it could proceed as a class action on behalf of the owners of all 400,000 Class One single-family homes in the county, 260,000 of which have already filed assessment grievances.
“The lawsuit will now proceed on behalf of all residential homeowners in Nassau County, and could impact approximately 400,000 homes,” prosecuting attorney Scott Mollen said of the ruling. “We now represent not just the named plaintiffs, but all Nassau County homeowners.”
The suit contends the county rushed the reassessment process with an understaffed DOA and a lack of transparency, and is seeking to receive injunctions stalling the temporary assessment rolls for 2020-21, preventing the county from collecting property taxes based on the 2018 reassessment and compensating homeowners who were overassessed.
The county released the formula the DOA used to reassess property values in compliance with a court order after being sued by Lynbrook resident Dennis Duffy back in April. The algorithm’s release concluded Duffy’s suit, but caused Berliner to file his own lawsuit against the county. Berliner and his fellow plaintiffs (Sands Point resident Robert Fine, Great Neck Estates resident Michael Aryeh and Franklin Square resident Jill Pesce) contend the formula, a 239-page file of computer code that is largely indecipherable to laypeople, leaves many of its factors vague.
Different markets weigh modifying factors like heating systems and location differently from one another. For example, in Market 3, an area that includes much of northern Nassau, having a hot water heater results in a tax deduction of about 4.5 percent compared to its absence, while in Market 2, having or not having a hot water heater does not factor into the assessment formula at all. Likewise, a central air system in a Market 2 house will result in a slight increase in valuation (a 1.0491 multiplier, to be exact) while having central air does not modify the formula in Market 3.
The divisions within the formula simply reflect the realities of the markets within the county, Justine DeGiglio, senior communications advisor for the county executive, said in an email statement back in July.
“Each market area has different market influences impacting real estate,” DeGiglio wrote. “This is one of the considerations in separating them out in the first place. Different market influences move in different ways and have different impacts on value. For example, in certain areas, the size of the lot may be very important and command a much higher rate. In other areas, the amount of land each residence sits on may not be as important.”
Nassau County assessment rolls had been frozen for eight years under former Republican county executive Edward Mangano, leaving property owners without updated valuations on their homes and skewing the tax burden in favor of those who filed grievances during that time. Curran unfroze the rolls and pushed forward a countywide reassessment with the help of county assessor David Moog, which, despite independent analysis concluding the new system is fair to county homeowners as a whole, has led to political infighting and inquiries from Nassau residents about the methodology behind the process.
County executive spokesperson Christine Geed said the county has made it clear that the DOA’s formula is just one element of many in the reassessment process. While many homeowners are seeing considerable increases in their assessments, the executive’s camp calls that jump a consequence of the decade-long freeze in the assessment roll under previous executive Edward Mangano, and a necessary step towards ensuring that no resident shoulders an unfair portion of the county’s tax burden.
“The question I ask people is ‘if you put your house on the market, what do you really think it’s going to sell for?’,” Geed said. “You’re telling me that the county inappropriately doubled the assessment value of your home, but if I want to give you a check for that previous value the first thing they’re going to say is ‘no, my house is worth three times that amount.’ That’s exactly what the county just got finished doing.”