STAR checks 'a debacle,' assessors say

SOME STAR REBATE CHECKS TOO SMALL, TOO BIG

ALBANY -- Property-tax rebate checks sent out by the state in recent weeks have turned into a "debacle," with some seniors getting half of what they are supposed to receive and other homeowners getting more money they are owed, assessors from across New York said Thursday.

The assessors said the problems with the STAR rebate checks are being compounded by the lack of information from the state Department of Taxation and Finance, which has refused to say how many New York homeowners have been impacted.

"It’s a total debacle," said Denise Trudell, the assessor in Salina, Onondaga County.

Trudell said the state had estimated that as many as 150,000 checks might go out this year under the new STAR program.

A group of assessors was on a conference call Thursday with the tax department, and state officials told them that senior citizens who were due checks for the Enhanced STAR program were getting about half of that in a check for Basic STAR.

Additionally, some Basic STAR check recipients are getting more than they are supposed to, the assessors said.

"It’s not just that Enhanced STAR people got Basic Star checks, it’s that people are getting checks for more than what the exemption is worth," said Teri Ross, the assessor in the Queensbury, Warren County, who is president of the state Assessors' Association.

Problems building

The situation developed last month after the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed in April to change the popular tax-rebate program from an upfront savings in school-tax bills to a check for new homeowners.

For existing homeowners, they still receive the upfront savings in their tax bills.   The checks for new homeowners were all supposed to be mailed out by Sept. 30 -- the deadline for most homeowners in New York to pay their annual school taxes.

But there have been reports around the state of checks not arriving or wrong amounts.

The state tax department confirmed last week that it sent out "a small number" of Basic STAR checks to seniors eligible for Enhanced STAR.

The state it has followed up with the people affected and plans to send out the difference in a new check this week.
The average basic STAR credit this year is $750, while the average Enhanced STAR is about $1,400 for eligible seniors.

About 650,000 New Yorkers receive Enhanced STAR every year.

"We have contacted all the taxpayers by phone, and letters are in the mail to inform them that they’ll be receiving an additional check," tax department spokesman James Gazzale said in a statement Tuesday.

In the dark

There was no immediate comment from the tax department Thursday about the latest problems and whether it can recoup any overcharges.

The agency has repeatedly refused to say how many erroneous checks were mailed out.

The checks are being sent to people who bought homes after Aug. 1, 2015, or didn't first apply for STAR since May 1, 2014.

Assessors said new homeowners are talking to their neighbors about their checks and finding out they are getting more than existing homeowners.

Assessors said Thursday they asked the tax department to provide them with a list of new homeowners eligible for the checks so they address any questions or follow up with the taxpayers.

The state declined to provide the names.

"The state is not sharing any of this information with the assessors," said Jay Franklin, director of Tompkins County Department of Assessment.  "We’re the ones the property taxpayers call first."

The extra money in some Basic STAR checks appears to be result of the state not factoring in a 2 percent cap on the growth in STAR benefits, the assessors said.

That's leading to larger STAR rebates for people getting the checks compared to those who get the savings upfront in their tax bills.

Larger checks

In Lansing, Tompkins County, some new homeowners are getting a STAR check for $624 compared to $615 for existing homeowners.

"It’s not a lot, but if the state is going to send out checks, at least make it accurate," Franklin said.

Meanwhile, assessors said some senior citizens haven't paid their school taxes because they were unable to cover the difference between their check and what was owed in school taxes by Sept. 30.

If the tax bill is late, homeowners are assessed a fine.

"To plan on a school bill of maybe being $600 and then all of sudden it’s $1,200, because you didn’t get that check, that’s an unnecessary burden," Franklin said.

Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, wrote a letter to the state Budget Division and the tax department this week encouraging the state to find an immediate remedy.

He said the state should reimburse homeowners any late fees due to the mishap.

"I am asking state officials to make sure everyone impacted in the Enhanced STAR Program receive the full amount they are entitled to as soon as possible, and late fees and penalties for anyone who has been affected by problems with their Enhanced STAR check this year be rebated,” Brindisi said in a statement.

Assessors said the tax department appears to be overburdened dealing with the STAR changes and a separate round of "tax freeze" rebate checks going out this fall.

"I can’t blame everything on tax and finance," Ross said. "It’s Legislature and the governor that put this in place, but then put it in (the agency's) lap and say, 'Do it.'"

Who must register

For the new STAR checks, here's the eligibility requirements:

- Those who bought their homes after Aug. 1, 2015, must register with the state Department of Taxation and Finance.

- Those who bought their homes between May 1, 2014, and Aug. 1, 2015, must register if they bought their homes after the 2015 STAR application deadline or never applied for the STAR benefit on their primary residence.

Owners who bought their homes before May 1, 2014, don’t need to take any action. They will continue to get the STAR exemption on their property tax bills.

Households with income under $500,000 are eligible for STAR. The tax exemption covers the first $30,000 of the full value of a person's primary home from school taxes.

The Enhanced STAR program applies to homeowners 65 and older whose household income is $86,000 or less.

The first $65,300 of their home value is exempt from school taxes.

Register at the Tax Department’s website or call 518-457-2036 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to enroll or ask any questions about your check.

 


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