Comptroller audit cites flaws in city’s valuing of properties

By Phil Corso

Suspicious co-op and condo owners in northeast Queens had their calls of foul play validated last week when two city comptroller audits said the city Department of Finance unfairly and unjustifiably raised their property assessments.

According to the audits, the Finance Department suddenly and drastically upped condo and co-op property values without warning, leading to an uproar over alleged opaque practices. Liu’s audits also accused the DOF of ignoring errors made by a new and allegedly faulty multimillion-dollar computer system.

“The department’s arbitrary decisions and actions will affect many families for years to come,” Liu said.

The audits came amid outrage among northeast Queens co-op and condo owners, who have seen the assessed values of their homes raised by as much as 147 percent last year, further increasing property taxes.

The Finance Department defended its numbers at first, but after homeowners complained and elected officials investigated, the department redid its math and lowered the assessments, Liu said.

“The Department of Finance should have gotten it right in the first place,” Liu said. “These are clearly problems and they need to be fixed. Real estate taxes are an important part of the revenues for the city of New York, but homeowners shouldn’t have to stress over wild, unexpected and inexplicable swings in their property assessments and taxes.”

More than 900 co-op and condo owners attended a panel discussion on the subject at North Shore Towers in Floral Park last Thursday, including state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Bob Friedrich, president of Glen Oaks Village Owners Inc.

“The Finance Department works each year to assess more than 1 million properties, transparently and accurately,” said DOF spokesman Owen Stone in a statement. “We continue to work with New Yorkers throughout that process.”

Several public officials joined Liu Friday at a press conference held outside Cryder Point, at 162-01 Powells Cove Blvd. in Whitestone, an area hit hard by increased property assessments. Public figures including Borough President Helen Marshall, who spoke alongside City Councilmen Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) and Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), state Assemblyman Edward Braunstein (D-Bayside) and state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing).

“We’re going to work for you. That’s our job and we’re going to do it,” Marshall said. “But having the information is so important. John Liu is the watchdog for all of us in so many issues.”

The audits also found that the city had changed its methodology in finding property valuations in the 2008-09 fiscal year by switching to what Liu called gross income multiplier. Without warning, however, the DOF reverted to its original methodology for the 2011-12 fiscal year. The switch resulted in 30 percent of co-ops seeing their property values increase by more than 50 percent.

Stavisky said Liu had a proven track record of uncovering waste and mismanagement.

“The audits gave face to what we suspected, which was a terrible inequity,” Stavisky said. “Shareholders have lost confidence in the Department of Finance and the integrity of the process. We are the last bastions of the middle class, quite frankly. We are not luxury.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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