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Nassau County Property Tax Challenges, Reductions Shift Burden To Other Homeowners

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- Property taxes are out of control – it's a common complaint.

But in Nassau County, the outcry is about more than just the amount of taxes. It is about how government divvies up the tax burden.

As CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff reported, experts said at least half the property tax assessments are wrong.

Imagine if you could haggle and win every time you pay your tax bill. In Nassau County, it is sort of like that when it comes to property taxes – every year.

"My assessment has been reduced significantly," one man said.

Record numbers of homeowners – more than 162,000 – are challenging their taxes. That amounts to nearly half of all Nassau County homeowners.

A booming 80 to 90 percent of the homeowners succeed.

It is so routine that homeowners flock to workshops on how to cash in on the savings.

"If all your neighbors are challenging their assessments and you don't, and they get a reduction, you know, that money has got to get shifted to somewhere else, and it's most likely potentially go on you," said Don Clavin Jr. of the Receiver of Taxes Office for the Town of Hempstead.

Angela Cici of Westbury said she has been running into high bills.

"I pay double what (my neighbors) they do -- something's wrong here," Cici said. "I have the same house that they have."

"I do believe the system at this point is a sham," said tax advisor Jeff Gold. "You get a reduction upon request, and it puts all the burden upon people who don't file grievances who know any better."

Gold, an attorney, used to sit on the Nassau County Board of Assessors. Now, he demystifies the system for Facebook followers.

The county and school districts, he explains, collect the same amount of money – they just change the tax rate. He said the system -- unique to Nassau County – is unfair and grossly inaccurate.

Market values, now artificially low, are off by as much as 50 percent.

"I believe the rolls are the worst they have ever been," Gold said. "They bear no semblance whatsoever to the actual fair market value of the homes."

Even County Executive Ed Mangano agrees the system he oversees is flawed – with nearly all challenges settled to save millions in refunds. Why hasn't he fixed that?

The answer, he said, requires complicated changes in state law.

"Smaller assessing jurisdictions do better. They're more accurate," Mangano said. "The county shouldn't be in the assessing business if it could get out of it."

Laura Curren is running for county executive, and sees a simpler fix.

"We have got to properly staff the assessor's office so that we have good professionals in there, and enough of them to get this right in the first place," Curren said. "The office has been decimated."

And enjoying the fruits of a broken system are a handful of tax appeal attorneys that rake in millions of dollars settling claims. They say they are providing a needed service.

The gravy train could be coming to an end next year, when a country review of all properties delayed for two years due to Superstorm Sandy is completed. In the meantime, if you're not annually filing grievances, you're losing.

The deadline to file this year's property tax grievance in Nassau County is March 1.

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