School Property Tax Rebates

Property Tax Cap.  STAR Credit Checks.  Property Tax Relief Checks.  Property Tax freeze Checks.  Despite Albany's efforts to convince us we are getting some kind of good deal, we still have high property tax bills each year.  Any person with common sense would say that you pay the taxes that are owed, minus whatever exemptions, if any, you are eligible for.  That would be simple, and would not cost local governments much to administer.  But this is New York State, and Albany has never seen a complicated mandate it didn't like.

"How are regular people supposed to understand these?" asked a Lansing School Board member.  "They can't," replied Tompkins County Director of Assessment Jay Franklin.

Franklin was at a Board Of Education meeting to try to make sense of three state tax-relief measures offered by New York State that eventually cost taxpayers more in state and local program administration, reporting, and the cost of mailing and printing tens and hundreds of thousands of checks state-wide.  School officials were concerned that district taxpayers are confused by the various rebates, and having a hard time understanding why -- or whether -- their taxes keep going up.

"One of the questions that we struggle with at our budget time is, let's say a $200,000 homeowner's school taxes are going to increase by $175 this year if you vote for this budget," said Lansing School Business Administrator Mary June King.  "What I'm looking at on the '17-'18 to the '18-'19 property tax relief check is that there's just about a doubling in that check.  What the property tax payer's will say is 'OK, you're going to raise my taxes $175 and I'm going to get that back in a check this year.  But next year I'm going to have to pony up that $175 out of my pocket if you're going to increase it again I've got to reach in for that $175, and then we can talk about your next increase.  How does that fit in this?"

"This would at least mitigate that for three years," Franklin replied.  "By going up an extra 20% over that STAR exemption, and it's planned to be fully phased in as of 2019.  That's two years away.  That's a lifetime when it comes to legislation, so who knows what's going to happen after 2019.  But if you went up $170 and that is compounded next year with another $170 -- you're at $340 and your income was not over $75,000 --- you're still $40 to the good.  Then another $170 and you're another $30 to the good.  At least for these three years you're actually to the positive side."

Did you understand that?  Franklin was very clear that the regulations and constant legislative changes are just as confusing to government officials.  He says he has a hard enough time explaining it to his staff, let alone the public, and the State has not made it easy for local assessment offices to help their constituents. 

He noted that checks are mailed, but some are not.  Some go to the wrong addresses.  He said at least five homes on Buck Road in Lansing get the wrong checks, and neighbors end up bringing the checks to each other rather than trying to enter the labyrinth of the state bureaucracy to try to get it sorted out.  Some are for the wrong amount.  And the rules keep changing.

"Since it is so complicated and we struggle with it ourselves, how can we help our district taxpayers?" asked School Board President Christine Iacobucci.

"If everything works they should just receive the check in their mailbox," he says.  "If anything doesn't work and somebody doesn't get a check, you can start by having them call my office and we'll make sure everything's set on our end.  But the worst thing about this is I can't help people.  My next step is that everything looks good on our end here... call New York State.  But do it at the beginning of the day or you're going to get an hour, or an hour and a half wait time."

Franklin explained the current status of the popular STAR exemptions, which are in the process of being replaced by STAR Credit Checks.  To qualify to receive the check you must earn below $500,000, your home must be your primary residence, and you must have been a homeowner since 2015.  If the State mails your check after September 30, it is supposed to pay you interest when they do finally mail it.

Properties that receive the STAR exemption or STAR Credit Check may also receive a Property Tax Relief Check.  To qualify your income must be less than $250,000 and your school district must comply with the NYS Property tax Cap.  If you make $75,000 or less your check might be $178 for the 2017/'18 school year, $381 next year, and $540 the following year.

Finally there are Property Tax Freeze Checks that depended on the school districts complying with the tax cap in its first year, but now schools must also submit a Government Efficiency Plan that must be approved by the NYS Division of the Budget.  That check is for the greater between the increase in the property tax bill OR the previous year’s tax bill multiplied by an inflation factor (the lesser of 2% or inflation).

"The purpose of these checks is to return money to the taxpayer because the school district has complied with the tax cap and we do this because we don't want to just tax people less?" asked school board member Susan Tabrizi.  "I'm trying to find a rationale for doing it this way instead of just not taking the money in the first place.  We're raising the taxes for the budget that we are proposing.  The State is coming in and saying we're going to give you this refund check and that makes it less painful for the taxpayer.  But it cuts us our of the picture."

"I think their logic is just distrust of school districts hoarding money, if you will, historically" said King.  "The Comptroller has been getting in front of that more aggressively for the last decade or so.  Our property tax cap is not related to our state aid amount.  If our state aid increases it doesn't decrease our property tax cap.  So I think the fear may be from some politions who don't trust people in my chair is that they could give us more state aid, but we're still going to go out and get as much out of the taxpayers as we can.  That we'd say the sky is the limit... let's hire more staff, let's raise salaries, let's be less responsible.  I think that's their concept."

Franklin said the State sent about 100,000 checks to property taxpayers last year, and this year that number is expected to double.

"It's just amazing what the state has done with sending out checks," he said.  "They must really love to see the Comptroller's signature on checks.  I don't know how it could be more cost-effective sending out all of these checks than simply providing more aid to the schools, aid to the towns, or let me check a box off on my income tax and I can receive the tax credit."