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STAR rebate is cloudy issue Assessors report homeowners puzzled

There's a galaxy of confusion this fall over STAR rebate checks and application deadlines.

Local assessors say they've received a rash of puzzled phone inquiries from worried homeowners asking about the state's tax relief program.

And even though checks have started to arrive and the state tried to alert residents when the checks would be coming, it hasn't lessened the queries.

"It's a big problem," said Amherst Assessor Harry Williams. "I wish the politicians would realize how much anxiety they create for people when they change things."

Williams said a number of stressed-out Amherst residents have contacted his office this week, worried about when their STAR rebate checks finally will arrive. They are counting on those checks, he said, to help pay their Amherst school tax bills, which are due this month.

Normally, the state mails STAR rebate checks out during the summer -- not in the fall -- according to Hamburg Assessor Robert Hutchinson.

The state issued a news release on Sept. 12, which said that the rebate checks would start to be mailed the week of Sept. 29, but that word apparently didn't reach the masses.

"We've had a lot of calls," Hutchinson confirmed. "The state has not opened their toll-free hotline for STAR yet, so we get the calls."

New York State's School Tax Relief Program includes Basic STAR exemptions and Enhanced STAR exemptions.

Basic STAR is available to anyone who owns and lives in his or her own home. There are no income restrictions. Enhanced STAR is available to senior homeowners whose incomes do not exceed a statewide standard that fluctuates from year to year.

Lancaster Assessor David Marrano said he, too, has been swamped with phone inquiries. The problem is bad enough that he's already paid several visits this month to senior centers in Lancaster and Depew to answer questions about STAR.

Residents who visit the state Department of Taxation and Finance Web site -- www.tax.state.ny.us -- can get brief guidance and estimated dates when STAR rebate checks are supposed to be mailed to their area.

But apparently people of all income levels, young and old, are still very puzzled.

"We know from the phone inquiries we've been receiving that the Enhanced STAR rebate checks have been going out already," Marrano said. "People with Basic STAR are calling us and saying: 'Well, my mother got hers already. Why didn't mine come?' "

Some of the confusion this year is due to the fact that the 2009 STAR exemption application arrived in the mail at almost the same time as the STAR rebate checks.

To further complicate matters, the state recently changed the application deadline to file or renew for STAR exemptions. It used to be a May 1 deadline. Beginning in 2009, the deadline will be March 1.

But that change doesn't apply to Erie County's three cities -- Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda.

Confusing?

Marrano said some property owners who normally must submit the exemption forms every year had the mistaken impression they didn't need to apply for 2009 because they got a rebate check in the mail at almost the same time.

He has some advice for those anxiously watching the mailbox.

"Sit tight and let the state's system work," he said. "If you haven't gotten a check yet by the end of the first week in November, that's when you need to get concerned."

e-mail: iliguori@buffnews.com

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