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TMCNet:  '70-toilet' house raises assessment questions in Nassau [Newsday, Melville, N.Y.]

[March 20, 2010]

'70-toilet' house raises assessment questions in Nassau [Newsday, Melville, N.Y.]

(Newsday (Melville, NY) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Mar. 20--T HERE'S a 1,200-square-foot, cape-style house in Farmingdale that has seven rooms. It has no garage, one full bathroom and a full basement. Yet, according to Nassau County property records, the house has 90 extra plumbing fixtures, all of them labeled as lavatories.

A Levittown cape has 70 toilets, while in Merrick, there's a split-level home with 20 stall showers and one extra lavatory.

And on Gruber Drive in Glen Cove, a 1,300-square-foot ranch home has 55 extra stall shower bathrooms, 21 extra lavatories and one extra sink, along with its two full bathrooms.

The details of these homes are all part of Nassau County's official property records -- available online to the public. Yet, a Newsday analysis of the county's property records found thousands of errors in that data, making the information appear to be a startlingly unreliable gauge of what is actually in a home.

These errors raise a critical question: Are residential properties in Nassau valued correctly when the data on thousands of them appear to be wrong? The Newsday study was begun in the wake of Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's statement last month that the county's assessment system could not be trusted.

10,000 question marks The study found that in just one category -- full bathrooms and half-baths -- thousands of property listings, potentially 10,000, have mistakes. It is not known how many additional errors there might be with such categories as finished basements, central air-conditioning or fireplaces.

The 10,000 question marks Newsday found are properties listed in the official records as having no half-bathrooms, but two or more "additional fixtures," a plumbing category that's meant to account for an extra sink in a laundry room, a bidet or an extra stall shower.

Newsday reported that the county's assessment Web site, for Mangano's Bethpage home, omitted a half-bath and central air-conditioning that are, in fact, part of the house. At that time, county officials said the assessment on Mangano's house was correct. But last week, Nassau Assessor Ted Jankowski said Mangano's property was likely incorrectly assessed. He said the half-bath likely had not been included in the assessment.

In an interview late last week, Mangano said the possibility of an incorrect assessment doesn't change his opinion that he pays too much in taxes.

"The assessor's office was in possession of correct information," he said. "At some point now there's incorrect information. In any event, I maintain that, like other residents in Nassau County, I am overtaxed." The question remains: Do mistakes in Mangano's assessment -- and thousands of others -- make a significant difference in assessments? Some county officials say the mistakes don't produce incorrect assessments, because additional plumbing fixtures aren't included in property valuations. Square footage, fireplaces, garages and, yes, bathrooms are among the key categories that do. But when asked to prove that, Jankowski and others have said the calculations involve complicated statistical techniques and mathematical models -- and that taxpayers should simply trust them.

No certainty what's correct Newsday's analysis showed that, in some cases, the assessments appear to be correct even when inventory information is not. But there's no guarantee, experts say, that assessments in certain cases aren't based on erroneous details. And some employees of the Department of Assessment say they believe the fixtures do count in a home's value.

If assessments are correct, the errors could still lead to questions about whether the system as a whole is trustworthy, the experts said.

The person tasked with fixing the system -- Deputy County Executive Patrick Foye -- says the errors must be fixed, whether or not they affect assessments.

"There are far too many data inaccuracies in the county's assessment system," said Foye, who is the executive director of a team studying Nassau's assessment system. "They must be fixed in order to provide fairness to our residential taxpayers." Said Mangano of the data errors: "It's a monumental issue. This department has the inability to produce a fair and accurate tax roll on an annual basis and that's why you need reform." Others say the additional fixture errors are not as critical as other issues for the assessment department because plumbing fixtures don't have a role in a property's assessment.

"They really don't have much impact on value," Jankowski said. "It's not important in the value so it's not something that rises to the top of the list to check out right away." Lost in translation Computer issues, either when data from the original property cards were typed into a software program, or when those data were later converted from one system to another, certainly played a role in the mistakes Newsday found. Mangano highlighted that issue in his State of the County address last week, when he said one of the department's older software systems "should be exhibited in the Smithsonian and not running assessment data in the year 2010." Whether or not it affects value, some said the accuracy of every data point and every line item matters greatly -- they are official records, after all.

"You can't have a good house without a good foundation, and the foundation for us is the inventory," Smithtown Assessor Greg Hild said. "You must have your inventory as correct as humanly possible." But others, including Jankowski and officials with the state Office of Real Property Services, note that an extra utility sink likely doesn't matter as much as a property's square footage or its location.

'Relatively accurate' Jankowski said he believes the system is "relatively accurate," especially since the county's own data show that assessments are on target when compared with sale prices. And, while he said he'd look into the "additional fixtures" issue, he argued there are bigger priorities.

"We've got a long list of things to do," Jankowski said.

Newsday's analysis showed that, in many of the properties, the additional fixtures may actually represent a bathroom or two, while in others, there aren't any extra fixtures at all. The analysis found many examples of homes where the publicly-available data -- on the county assessor's own Web site -- include obvious errors, such as the 90 additional lavatories and 70 extra toilets -- things you'd find in a hotel, not a single-family home.

"That's ridiculous," said the owner of the Merrick home, who asked not to be named but noted that her home does not have 20 stall showers. While listed as having one full bathroom in the online records, the home actually has three bathrooms, two of which have stall showers, she said.

How was the mistake made? It appears that her original property record card, dated 1960, is correct, listing one full bath and two "stall shower bathrooms." At some point, when the information on this card was transcribed into the assessor's computer system, or when it was converted from one software system to another, the two stall shower bathrooms became 20 -- and neither was counted as a bathroom in her records.

"I could use an extra toilet but I don't need 20 showers," the homeowner added.

Like the Merrick home, the Farmingdale, Levittown and Glen Cove properties appear to have assessments relatively in line with comparable nearby properties -- based on the data found in the official records. None of the owners of those properties were available for comment.

Apparent contradiction But while Nassau assessment officials say the "additional fixtures" category isn't used in assessment calculations, documentation from the county itself seems to contradict that. In a flier posted on the county's Web site encouraging residents to apply for property tax exemptions, the county lists "taxable improvements" -- those defined as increasing assessed value -- and includes porches, central air-conditioning and additional plumbing fixtures, a category that includes sinks, bathtubs, showers and new bathrooms.

Jankowski said the flier didn't come from his office, so he "won't take responsibility for it." If the additional fixtures actually make up another bathroom the assessor didn't record properly, it's possible a property may be underassessed, Newsday found. But unless an assessor goes to the home and discovers an additional bathroom, that's impossible to prove.

At the state level, the state's Office of Real Property Services, whose software is used by 96 percent of assessing units statewide -- including several Suffolk County towns -- doesn't collect "additional fixtures" data at all, according to spokesman Geoffrey Gloak. It's not recorded on the office's property inventory cards and doesn't play a role in valuing properties, Gloak said.

"What we're trying to do is to find the aspects of a property that would most affect the value," Gloak said. But there's no uniform statewide standard for how to calculate assessments or value inventory, he added.

Former Nassau Assessor Harvey Levinson said additional fixtures were important in calculating value before the 2001-2003 countywide reassessment because assessments then were based on 1938 construction costs. Now, with current market prices used, additional fixtures wouldn't make much of a difference. Still, the mistakes are not acceptable, he argued.

Because so many people look on the county Web site before buying or selling a house, Levinson said, "These errors should be cleaned up. Even if they didn't influence value, it should be cleaned up." Assessment officials suggested that residents should check their data online, or make an appointment to speak with an assessor.

Some experts noted that homeowners who find mistakes could be more likely to grieve their taxes, potentially helping to fuel a grievance system that each year produces refunds of more than $90 million to residential and commercial property owners.

Don't count on correction Sean Acosta, of Property Tax Reduction Consultants, said he has seen fixture errors that affect his clients, who sometimes complain they are listed as having three bathrooms when they have only two. Acosta said he has sent fixture errors to the county for correction.

"The county doesn't do anything with it," he said. "The county doesn't look at them." Fred Perry, a residential tax appeals lawyer, said he has found inaccuracies in a house's square footage, and location factors such as a waterfront or a busy street that could affect its value. But even those errors aren't widespread, he said.

"Overall, I would say in the last few years that there's not a large amount of inventory errors, meaning house information, on the public Web site," Perry said.

Jankowski said the system has "self-corrected" many errors, noting that the department makes 27,000 visits to properties each year. He said it's impossible to identify and prove most errors without having a homeowner contact the office or having an assessor physically look at the property.

"The only real way to solve it ultimately is through inspection," Jankowski said.

To see more of Newsday, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.newsday.com Copyright (c) 2010, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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