I’ve been involved in Nassau County politics and government for 17 years, and I’m constantly learning about our neighbor to the immediate east. It’s just a few quick steps from Queens to Nassau, but it might as well be hundreds of miles away. Proximity breeds comfort, but it’s a false familiarity with ongoing consequences in Mineola, the county seat; in New York City Hall; and in Albany.
I was, many years ago, deputy counsel, and then chief of staff, of the Nassau County Legislature. I’ve coordinated successful state Senate campaigns there, and lost a significant one. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but there was a time when I supervised the successful re-election campaigns of an entire Nassau legislative majority. I stay in regular touch with reporters and columnists from Newsday, Long Island’s daily paper of record, and had a role in many big stories about Nassau politics. I regularly meet with candidates and public officials in diners throughout the county. Nassau synagogues, JCCs, nonprofits and personalities are all already regular features in New York Jewish Life.
All of which is to say that I’m not a tourist out there. The credentials matter because I’ve been proselytizing, to anyone who will listen, about the vast gulf in understanding between New York City and Nassau County. We haven’t yet gotten to the point where people are avoiding me, but that time is getting close. Here’s what I’ve learned:
New York City residents, and particularly New York City public officials and politicians, have no appreciation of how much Nassau County families pay in property taxes, and how that impacts pretty much everything.
A family can own a Victorian mansion in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, bought recently for over $1.5 million, or decades ago for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and be paying less than $8,000 a year in property taxes. A family on Nassau County’s North or South Shore, in a home assessed at less than half the above Brooklyn home, can be paying $30,000 in property taxes. Middle Nassau County numbers are lower, but just by a bit. These are conservative numbers, as city condos in luxury high-rises, with development abatements, can be worth $2.5 million with 10 years of minimal property tax bills, and many Nassau homes have taxes north of $40,000 annually.
While it is true that New York City has an income tax while Nassau County does not, and city properties are more regularly and accurately assessed, the disparity in tax bills is startling. Property taxes may be how local Nassau schools (and most everything else) are funded, and there is less stress about where children go to middle and high schools, but it’s still a lot of money.
Nassau County parents are trapped, especially when their adult children move out. While there is much written about the delayed adulthoods of college graduates moving back in with Mom and Dad, there still comes a time when the nest becomes empty. Your kids are no longer in school, but you are still paying exorbitant tax bills. Unlike in New York City, where artificially low residential-property taxes are supplemented by commercial property taxes, an income tax and the vast wealth created by Wall Street, the Nassau burden remains on homeowners regardless of whether they’re still using the schools.
And never forget that many in Nassau County pay bills for schools they never use, because their children are in yeshivas. So these families, clustered in the Five Towns, Great Neck, Roslyn, Port Washington, Woodbury and Jericho, pay double and pay dearly.
The housing stock gets tight, because empty-nesters are loath to sell their homes, so prices and assessments go up and taxes go up more. Younger families have to move farther east—out into Suffolk County—or north, past Westchester into the Hudson Valley. They pay high property taxes as well, and they have a commute. Anger and frustration grows. Populist votes ensue. All the while, New York City politicians thunder on about affluent suburban voters, never really appreciating the stressful reality of those just beyond their urban borders.
This disconnect fuels bad policy in Albany, with city legislators driving discussions that make no sense for Long Island. Whether about state aid to local government or relief for tuition-paying families, Nassau County needs are different from traditional urban needs.
Which brings us to a second political truth:
Don’t lecture Nassau families about county taxes, government or politics. Those who do so come across as condescending, and no productive conversation can come of it.
What I learned working in government, reinforced by working in Long Island politics, is that Nassau families know about the shape of their government economics. They understand the dangers posed by mismanagement and bloated patronage payrolls. They know it can be better without overlapping public offices. But this is the system they return to office again. Whatever problems there are in public finances, they are comfortable paying out of their own pockets for supplemental education services, sports teams, civic associations, volunteer fire departments and landscaping, They are happy to pay for services that benefit their neighborhood.
For years, candidates at all levels of government have attacked finances managed by the Nassau County executive and town supervisors, usually with little success. To my mind, and there are lessons to be learned for statewide and national campaigns in the Trump era, this comes across as insulting the voters. Nassau County voters know what they’re deciding on. Calling them wrong—in campaigns and in policy discussions afterwards—gets nothing done.