Waiting for rebate checks? Frustration builds

ALBANY -- Julian Leventhal makes it a weekly task: Call the state tax department to ask when he will get his STAR rebate check.

The answer is never satisfactory.

"He calls at 8:30 in the morning every single week," his wife, Barbara, 70, of White Plains, described.

"And people give him the run around: ‘It’s going to be in the mail; it’s going to be in the mail.’ The last guy, the supervisor says, ‘Just keep calling every month. It’s a disaster here.’"

Some residents and local leaders continue to express frustration about tax-rebate checks that are due to homeowners.

The state Department of Taxation and Finance said it has issued nearly 2 million property-tax rebate checks since the fall, so almost all that were expected to go out by year's end.

That included about 60,000 checks for homeowners who recently moved and are now getting their STAR rebates in a check rather than an upfront savings on their school-tax bills.

"We'll continue to issue STAR checks on a rolling basis as homeowners who purchased their properties in 2016 register for the STAR credit for that year," tax department spokesman James Gazzale said.

"In addition, we continue to process property-tax freeze and relief credit checks on a daily basis."


Checks aplenty

The tax department is administrating three tax-rebate programs.

Homeowners have been receiving checks for the third and final year of a 'tax-freeze' program that pays them back for the growth in their municipal property taxes in 2016.

The check is combined with another program the state Legislature approved in 2015, called a "property-tax relief credit."

For those eligible, the tax-relief piece is $185 for upstate residents and $130 downstate.

So the combined check for both programs has been averaging about $280, according to the state Budget Division.

Households with income less than $500,000 are getting the "freeze" check, while the tax-relief credit is for households with income of $275,000 or less.

Both programs require local governments to stay under the state's property-tax cap for homeowners to be eligible.


STAR complaints

Then there's the STAR rebate check, the $3 billion a year program that provides a savings on people's school taxes.

A state law in April changed the program from being an upfront savings to a check sent by the state tax department for people who bought homes after Aug. 1, 2015, or didn't first apply for STAR since May 1, 2014.

But since September, residents and local tax assessors have complained that the checks have either been sent with wrong amounts or not sent at all.

And the money is substantial, particularly because the new program requires homeowners to pay their school-tax bill in full and then wait for the reimbursement.

The basic STAR credit this year is $750, while eligible seniors get an average of $1,400 for Enhanced STAR
Jay Franklin, the director of assessment in Tompkins County, said part of the frustration is that the tax department's hotline (518-457-2036) often has long waits and no answers for residents.

And local assessors can't help people, because it's a state-run process.

"The absolute worst part is giving out a number and knowing you have just doomed that person for an hour wait to maybe get someone who can help them when, in the past, we could have helped them in a minute," Franklin said.

Assessors said it appears people who live recently moved into co-ops or mobile homes have yet to receive their STAR checks.

For homeowners who didn't move, the STAR program is not changing: It remains an upfront exemption on school-property taxes.

Who must register for STAR

For the new STAR checks, here are 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 if they never applied for the STAR benefit on their primary residence.

Owners who purchased 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.

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.


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