NEW YORK STATE — Every January, thousands of low-income senior citizens and people with disabilities who own their homes trek to their local town or city hall to apply for an annually renewed property tax exemption.
In the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic in which senior citizens are particularly vulnerable, a lot of local government officials and some state legislators think that’s not a good idea.
The New York State Assessors Association has asked state senators to lobby Gov. Andrew Cuomo to suspend the requirement that seniors and the disabled file or renew their exemptions in January, and a Hudson Valley senator has introduced legislation to suspend it.
“As COVID spikes, the last thing we want to do is bring seniors into our offices,” said Scott Shedler, assessor for the town of Ramapo and past president of the state association. “It’s pretty stressful just for the average homeowner, let alone for senior citizens during a pandemic. Whether it is small or large, this is an issue that effects every community.”
The exemption, for up to half of their municipal tax bill, is available to any homeowner age 65 or older who meets low-income criteria, which generally means earning less than $30,000 per year — or higher, in some circumstances. The exemption must be renewed annually, with the senior citizen or disabled person submitting a copy of their last income tax return, as proof that they remain low-income, though some may be able to provide electronic verification.
Towns mail out renewal applications to each person with the exemption, and the application can be returned by mail by the end of January. But historically, local officials say it’s common for senior citizens to bring their application to the town assessor’s office to complete.
“It’s complex for many and they require assistance very often,” said Glenville Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle, who wrote a letter to Cuomo’s office on the issue last month. “They have to provide a photocopy of their tax return, and a lot of seniors don’t have access to a copier at home, and will come in just to make the copy.”
Koetzle said it’s rare for low-income seniors to see their income go up, so he thinks there would be little risk in Cuomo issuing an executive order suspending the need to reapply in 2021. “We’re trying to avoid the people who are most vulnerable from having to do this at all,” he said.
How the application process will work in 2021 is unclear, anyway, since many municipal buildings across the state are either closed to the public or open only by appointment.
“We believe many seniors will be forced to give up these exemptions because they do not wish to leave their homes for fear of contracting this potentially deadly virus,” Schedler wrote in a letter from the Assessors Association sent to all members of the state Senate last week.
Sen. David Carlucci, D-Rockland County, has submitted a bill that would suspend the re-application requirement for one year, though it would need to be taken up by the Legislature almost immediately in January — assuming the state Legislature convenes — in order to be effective.
“We are working two different angles simultaneously, an executive order and legislation,” said Maggie A. Alix of Green Island, chairperson of the Assessors’ Association legislative committee. “We need the executive order because there is no telling whether the Legislature will convene between now and the end of the year.”
Some state legislators are urging the governor to act unilaterally, issuing an executive order under the emergency powers he was granted at the start of the pandemic in March.
“Time is of the essence in this situation because assessors send the renewal paperwork to these groups on January 1 in order to meet their local deadlines,” Sen. Pamela A. Helming, R-Geneva, wrote to Cuomo last month.
A letter is also being circulated through the state Association of Towns, urging local municipalities to appeal to the governor’s office.
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.