Municipal assessors were stunned Tuesday by an Associated Press story that chronicled a state budget proposal to require STAR tax exemption recipients to annually re-register, as a confused public flocked to local town offices for answers.
The draft 2013-14 state budget would see the state Department of Taxation and Finance take administrative control of the state School Tax Relief Program exemption applications and require recipients under age 65 to annually reapply for the tax break.
Local assessors currently handle the applications and oppose the state’s proposed administrative takeover.
“It’s an assessor’s job to grant exemptions,” said Queensbury Assessor Terri Ross, a board member of the New York State Assessors’ Association.
The state for years has grappled with what Taxation and Finance officials see as widespread fraud and abuse. The most-cited case of abuse is when property owners receive STAR exemptions on both their primary residence and a second home.
Senior citizens, who already receive larger exemptions, already must annually re-register with the local assessor, while younger homeowners don’t have to re-file.
The proposal would force everyone who receives the exemption regardless of age — more than 6,500 property owners in Queensbury alone — to file with the state.
Ross said an assessor’s local knowledge is more effective than a database and investigators in Albany.
“We might know if somebody doesn’t live there,” she said of local homes. “The assessors do the best job they can in trying to track people down.”
The push for state administration of the exemption program has been discussed in Albany for years.
State Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, noted the draft budget, which could be adopted by the Legislature on Thursday, includes an additional $300 million for the STAR program.
Little added that the state’s effort to curb fraud is a sound one.
“Ensuring only those qualified and entitled to this relief receive it is also important and that’s the point of this anti-fraud change in the program adopted as part of the budget,” Little said.
But Tuesday’s news blindsided local assessors and droves of area property owners.
Assessors, inundated with calls from property owners worried they would lose out on this year’s exemption, noted that the change, if enacted, wouldn’t happen until 2014.
“We don’t even know this is going to happen,” said Mary Ellen Hill-Pierce, assessor for the towns of Whitehall, Hampton, Fort Ann and Corinth.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said it’s too early to know how the state’s new oversight will play out, but wanted to know how much it would cost the Department of Taxation and Finance.
Stec added that something needs to be done for second homeowners double-dipping the STAR exemption.
“Whether or not it’s a good plan or a bad plan, we won’t know until they write it,” Stec said. “Is double-dipping a real problem? Yes.”
The 2013 STAR exemption filing was due March 1.
STAR is available to the vast majority of New York’s homeowners who earn under $500,000 a year. The program exempts $30,000 of a home’s value from school taxes.
“They’ve kind of jumped the gun,” Johnsburg Deputy Assessor Christian Holt said of the news story. “There’s just a lot of confusion.”
Grassroots concern about a state issue typically leads to local lawmakers being saturated with constituent calls.
But as the lines swelled at local town halls Tuesday, area legislative offices said they hadn’t heard from assessors or the public, according to Little’s spokesman, Dan MacEntee.
Local officials are increasingly criticizing the Cuomo administration for what they see as getting involved in local government operations.
“It’s just them sticking their noses into local business,” Washington County Emergency Services Director Bill Cook said Tuesday of the state’s increased oversight over local emergency services. “A lot of animosity is bubbling up.”