The Real Deal New York

The decider

Laura Curran hasn’t shied away from tough choices, from booting a developer off the Nassau Hub project to overseeing a controversial property tax reassessment initiative
By Maya Rajamani | February 19, 2019 11:00AM

Laura Curran (Photo by Emily Assiran)

When former journalist and Democratic county legislator Laura Curran took the oath of office as Nassau County executive at the beginning of 2018, she already had two major projects on her to-do list: revamping Nassau County’s property tax system and restoring trust in a government marred by allegations against her predecessor, Republican Ed Mangano, who is currently being retried on political corruption charges. Less than a month after the swearing-in, she began tackling the latter: signing an order banning her appointees from donating to her campaign or taking leadership positions in any political parties. And at the beginning of this year, Curran wrapped up the county’s property tax reassessment — a process she describes as “a bit messy,” considering that the county’s system had been frozen since 2010 and a “culture of grievance” had taken root, she said. Critics, meanwhile, expressed anger over the reassessment, with some homeowners slated to see an increase in their property taxes. “But I knew the longer we avoided it, the more painful the fix would be, and the more in debt we would be,” Curran told TRD.

Curran has also focused on a slew of other projects — including a transit-oriented housing development known as Woodcrest Village Park in Oceanside and the long-awaited Nassau Hub. In September, the county chose RXR Realty and BSE Global to construct the $1.5 billion project around the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale — a few months after Curran decided not to move forward with Blumenfeld Development Group’s proposal for the area.

Heading into her second year in office, Curran’s Taxpayer Protection Plan, which aims to phase in tax changes related to the reassessment over the course of five years, got a vote of confidence from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who backed its implementation in Nassau County by including it in his state budget proposal. Curran, a Baldwin resident, looked back on her first year as county executive and shared some of her plans for the county in an interview with TRD that has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What kind of changes are you hoping to implement going into the second year of your term? The Department of Assessment and the Assessment Review Commission were both decimated by the previous administration, in terms of staff [to cut costs]. The work of assessment wasn’t being done. We’re not raising property taxes this year, but we have made it a priority to hire scores of new people — sometimes rehiring people who left the two departments — because we need people there doing the work.

[Finishing the reassessment] was sort of dealing with a problem nobody wants to deal with. We’ve had some bumps in the road. But any problem that you avoid for too long, it’s going to be messy, and it has been a bit messy. On Jan. 17, I announced a quality assurance unit. We have multiple sets of eyes on everything, to begin to win back people’s trust in this process.

Nassau recently posted reassessed property values for all 424,000 residential and commercial properties in the county, but the new numbers have confused and angered many property owners, and local Republicans have asked for an April 30 grievance deadline. Will higher home appraisals just lead to higher taxes? It’s really on a case-by-case basis. Countywide, approximately 48 percent [of property owners] will see a decrease, while 52 percent will see an increase … When you explain to people what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, most of the time they get it. Not everybody loves it, but they understand you have to be fair, and you have to be accurate.

Under the old assessment model, most appeals were successful, with many owners of higher-priced properties paying less in taxes than they had before, which some say created an imbalance. What steps are needed to improve the process? I think this quality assurance unit will really make a difference in improving it. And we’re working on restaffing [the Department of Assessment and the Assessment Review Commission], so there will be human beings there that actually do the work. Before, people who grieved repeatedly tended to get reductions. Those who didn’t grieve, or didn’t grieve very often, had to pick up the tab for those who were getting the reduction. For the first time in nearly a decade, we created a stated fair market value for every property in Nassau County that we’re confident we can defend.

When you named a new master developer in RXR Realty for the Nassau Hub last September, a rival developer accused you of playing political favorites and said there was a lack of transparency to the process. Why did you reject the Blumenfeld Development Group’s bid to develop the site, and how to you respond to claims of favoritism?  I believe those claims are completely unfounded. The only way that Empire State Development Corporation would approve the use of $85 million in state money for a parking structure was if there was going to be a transformative project on the site … that brought high-wage jobs. The Blumenfeld project was not transformative. It would not have checked that box.

Airbnb recently announced that Long Island users earned more than $47 million from visitors last year. Only about $5.3 million of that sum came from Nassau. Still, many municipalities collect hotel taxes on short-term rentals. Is that in the works for Nassau? The issue has a dramatic impact on Suffolk, so I’m kind of watching to see how Suffolk County is going to be handling this issue. From what I understand, they have much more Airbnb than we do, in the Hamptons, on the beaches. I see it as a real issue. We don’t have as much, but I’m definitely looking at the law and the tax implications.

You used to be a reporter for The Daily News and New York Post. What compelled you to make the switch to politics? I feel there are a lot of things in common between being in politics and being in journalism. The most striking is that you have to synthesize a lot of information, and then tell the story about what this information does — although in journalism, you try to be objective. In politics, obviously, you take a point of view. Because I covered so many different kinds of things, I came into this knowing a lot about how things work.

What real-estate related issues deserve more attention than they’re currently getting? How interdependent we are as a region. I speak regularly with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone [and] Westchester County Executive George Latimer. We’re more linked than people think.