Weeding out duplicate filings for the state’s basic School Tax Relief exemption has been next to impossible for local assessors.
Residents applying for exempt status in one community could easily — or mistakenly — register for it in another municipality. But with local assessors’ offices usually short on resources and lacking any sort of enforcement capabilities, finding the double-dippers is no easy task, said John Macejka Jr., the assessor for the town of Rotterdam.
“How do I know if someone has another property in another part of the state they’re claiming?” he asked. “There’s no way of catching it. Sometimes these people were just mailing [their exemption] in and it gets processed just like they’re living there.”
But that system is about to change under a new initiative by the state Department of Taxation and Finance. Over the next two months, the state will compile a database of the roughly 2.6 million homeowners now receiving the basic STAR exemption under the state-funded program that exempts $30,000 of the full value of a primary residence from school taxes, so that any duplicate applications can be easily spotted.
“Local assessors monitor basic STAR in their communities but do not have the ability to know if an individual is receiving STAR in any of the other 1,000 localities statewide,” Taxation and Finance Commissioner Thomas Mattox said in a statement. “This is the first registration in the STAR program’s 15-year history, and it will eliminate inappropriate and fraudulent exemptions.”
Registering for the program can be done online at the Tax Department’s website or by phone. A state mailing that details the process is being sent to all homes receiving the exemption in the coming month; Capital Region residents can expect to receive the mailer sometime during the first week of September.
The initiative impacts only to those receiving the basic exemption and not the enhanced STAR exemption, which is for senior citizens. Those homeowners already receiving the basic STAR exemption on their residence or who have purchased a home as their primary residence before March will need to register with the state by New Year’s Eve.
The change impact only basic STAR exemptions for 2014 and beyond. Homeowners will not have to reregister every year based on the information provided in the registration process.
“This balanced approach protects the integrity of the STAR program and guards taxpayer dollars from those who seek to game the system,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said. “The registration program provides an accessible, convenient and secure way for qualified homeowners to retain their exemption.”
The initiative was launched by the Cuomo administration after a Taxation and Finance investigation revealed numerous homeowners receiving more than one exemption. The basic STAR program saves the average homeowner about $700 annually, a total of about $1.9 billion across the state each year.
In Schenectady County, more than 30,000 homeowners receive a basic STAR exemption. Finding duplicates among them is nearly impossible, said Amy Houlihan, the assessor for Niskayuna.
“It’s hard for us as assessors to catch those things,” she said.
The difficulty in catching duplicates increases in communities with a higher number of rental properties, such as Schenectady. Speaking in general, city Finance and Administration Commissioner Deborah DeGenova said the new state initiative seems rationally based.
“Any time you can systemize your data on a larger level, then there’s going to be certain efficiencies that will come from that,” she said.
Macejka said the problem of double-dippers didn’t seem too severe in Rotterdam, where only a handful were identified by the state. Still, he said the easy-to-use registration system will prevent local assessors from having to bear the burden of proof when they suspect someone is receiving two exemptions.
“This is going to improve the process greatly,” he said.