New flood relief measures will allow local governments and school districts the option of reassessing properties in federally-declared disaster areas, cutting overburdened homeowners a break on their tax bills.
The state Senate and Assembly approved the legislation during a special session that ran from Wednesday night into Thursday morning.
“It would add insult to injury to force homeowners to pay thousands of dollars in taxes for a house that no longer exists or is uninhabitable,” Assemblyman George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, said in a Thursday news release.
However, those municipalities or school districts who opt to offer such a break — many of whom are struggling to find money to pay for their own repairs — would be left to make up for any lost property tax revenue.
The Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee Assessment Relief Act allows all local governments and school districts the option of reassessing properties damaged by the floods and retroactively dating it to Aug. 26, just days before Irene inundated the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys. Reassessment can only take place if the reduction in the assessed value is greater than 50 percent of the property’s original value. Essentially, property owners who suffered major damage can ask for a reassessment on their home and receive a new, post-storm taxable value.
“Taxpayers who were catastrophically impacted by either the hurricane or tropical storm and found themselves still liable for the full amount of their tax bills, despite the damage to their properties, were looking for relief,” said state Office of Real Property Tax Services spokesman Geoff Gloak.
The agency will send information to assessors in eligible municipalities — counties, cities, towns and villages — and school districts in the next few days, Gloak said.
If a homeowner has already received a tax bill, there are provisions in place that would allow them to request a revised bill. And if a homeowner has already paid their tax bill, they can receive a refund, he said.
“So if a municipality opted into this this week and the assessor grants a reduction on the assessment of a property, there is a procedure in place where the taxpayer will be contacted and offered that revision or refund,” Gloak said.
Municipalities have 45 days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the legislation, currently on his desk, to pass a resolution adopting the provisions of the relief act. A property owner has 90 days after Cuomo signs to request a reassessment.
If an assessor finds that a property lost at least half of its value because of storm-related damage, assessment relief will be granted on par with the percentage loss of value. For example, if a property lost at least 80 percent but less than 90 percent of its value, its taxable assessed value will be reduced by 85 percent. For those whose property lost its entire value, their taxable assessed value will be reduced to zero.
In Rotterdam Junction, seven or eight homes sustained damage of more than 50 percent, said Rotterdam town Assessor John Macejka, Jr. Since the junction’s valuations are at the lower end of the town’s taxable values, he said the impact on tax bills won’t be too dramatic, but it will certainly help flood-affected homeowners. And any help is welcome.
“It adds up certainly,” Macejka said. “And it’s good to know that we are doing whatever we can through the legislative process. So their cries for help are not being ignored. And I think that any kind of relief down there is going to be of help to them.”
Assessors will feel relief, in a sense, as well. Macejka said assessors have been hamstrung by legislation that hasn’t always allowed them in the past to offer relief to individuals whose homes have been damaged by fires or even tornadoes.
“It does take a lot of pressure off us,” he said. “We try to be as accommodating and sympathetic to the residents as we can. So this really is a relief to us to be able to go back to them and really help them in ways we couldn’t before.”
School districts will not see their state aid reduced as a result of any decreased local contribution stemming from the relief act.
School districts can also decide to offer additional relief to homeowners in federally-declared disaster zones. If they opt into the program and decide to accept property tax payments in installments, they can receive advanced school aid payments for the 2011-12 school year.
The number of installments would be at the discretion of the school district. The amount of advanced school aid that would be given to the school districts is at the discretion of Education Commissioner John King, Jr., state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Division of the Budget Director Robert Megna.
Local governments will have the discretion to decide if this is something they want to do, but for some it could be a challenge, said Assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie.
“They have to determine where they will pull that money from if they choose to do refunds,” said Lopez.
Schoharie County will take a hard look at it, he said, and has already been looking at every available option for relief.
“The question is going to be the mechanics of it,” he said.
Towns of Schoharie, Esperance and Wright Assessor Steve Rubeor could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Additional flood recovery legislation was passed during the special legislative session, including $21 million in grants to small businesses, farms, multiple dwellings and not-for-profit organizations directly affected by flood damage. Those eligible can receive up to $20,000 to use for storm-related repairs that weren’t covered by any other federal, state or local recovery program.
Counties with flood mitigation and control projects in the works can receive up to $500,000 from a $9 million grant pool. Preference will be given to projects that demonstrate the greatest need.
State officials are also developing a plan to distribute $20 million in additional aid to municipalities in federal disaster flood areas affected by Irene or Lee.
State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said he is pleased the session produced significant help for communities trying to rebuild from the floods.
“Homeowners who suffered major damage or, in some cases, lost everything, should have that loss reflected on their tax bills,” said Seward in a news release issued Thursday.