ALBANY – Many New Yorkers, intent on keeping whatever savings they can get on their property taxes, are flocking to the Internet to re-register to keep their state STAR program benefits from expiring.
Officials say 86 percent of homeowners who have re-registered have done so through the state Department of Taxation and Finance website, www.tax.ny.gov.
Not so in the tiny town of Leon in Cattaraugus County, or other rural towns that are home to large Amish populations.
Once again, the Amish are finding that their lifestyle does not fit neatly into the things that make up complicated tax policies and budget deals cut by government leaders. As a result, state tax officials, local assessors and church elders have been scrambling to help the Amish comply with a new edict or risk losing out on valuable savings that average $700 per homeowner statewide under the School Tax Relief Program.
“You can’t just pick up the phone and contact them, so you have to try other avenues,” said Dennis Fisher, the town assessor in Leon, where the population is 75 percent Amish.
That includes his plans for today, when he will be stopping by several Amish businesses, including a blacksmith, to put up fliers reminding Amish residents that they have until Dec. 31 – with some undetermined wiggle room – to re-register for STAR or risk losing their annual property tax break.
The Amish don’t generally use computers. Some do use telephones, but more conservative communities eschew such modern amenities. As a result, assessors and the state tax department have come up with some creative outreach efforts to ensure eligible Amish residents keep their STAR exemptions.
On Dec. 28, a state official is coming to Leon to help the Amish and others with re-registration. Officials chose a Saturday so as not to interfere with the weekday work schedules of many Amish dairy farmers or their Sunday day or worship. The plan, put together with the help of an Amish leader, is for an official from the Office of Real Property Tax Services to set up shop for a few hours in the Town Assessor’s Office and – on the office computer – sign up people whose religious beliefs keep them away from such devices.
“I hope that will make them feel more comfortable,” Fisher said of the idea.
In Leon, just 68 percent of current STAR owners have re-registered as of last week, compared with 76 percent countywide, which is among the lowest participation levels for upstate counties. Saratoga County, by contrast, has seen 87 percent of STAR recipients re-register.
Besides Western New York, there are Amish enclaves in Central New York, the Mohawk Valley and Northern New York. The U.S. Census Bureau does not compile statistics on religious affiliation, but Dale Jones, a data analyst with the U.S. Religion Census, sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, said New York was home to 10,787 Amish in 2010.
The STAR effort was pushed this year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as a way to eliminate people from the program who do not qualify for its benefits, such as those who might take a STAR benefit on a second home. The re-registration program envisioned most people signing up online or via telephone with the Department of Taxation and Finance. But to serve the Amish, the department permitted paper forms to be submitted. To fill out the forms, a homeowner needs to have a unique STAR number code, which, in the case of the Amish, has meant sometimes getting the help of local assessors.
In the Town of Chautauqua, Assessor Randall G. Holcomb has had a dozen Amish homeowners come to his office for help. His routine: He gets on the phone with officials in Albany while the Amish resident verbally gives him the answers to complete the application. Holcomb has gone this route because he considers it part of his job, he said, and he hasn’t heard about the paper applications that some officials say have only been quietly promoted by the state for fear of it undermining the easier, and often more accurate, electronic submissions.
But assessors say the state has not provided them the names of which residents have re-registered for STAR, making local outreach, especially in Amish communities, more difficult.
“Most assessors know the Amish community and who can do what,” he said of Amish communities that have different rules about the level of technology that a member can use. “I want to assist them, and if they want to do it by phone and they don’t use the phone we will do it in our office.”
State tax officials have had to bend rules to respect the Amish culture before, officials say, such as letting Amish business owners submit sales tax data by mail instead of electronically.
“The Tax and Finance Department has been responsive to the Amish community’s unique needs,” State Sen. Catharine M. Young, R-Olean, who has Amish residents in four of her district’s counties, said of the willingness to accommodate the Amish and STAR.
Geoffrey T. Gloak, a spokesman for the Department of Taxation and Finance, said that paper re-registration forms for STAR have been sent directly to assessors in areas with large Amish enclaves and that some community leaders have asked for a couple of hundred forms to distribute at church and community gatherings.
Assessors note the close-knit ways of the Amish communities and say word about the STAR re-registration is getting out more. In Leon, the assessor took out an ad in a local pennysaver, a publication apparently popular with some Amish communities.
With nearly 650,000 current STAR recipients statewide still not re-registered, the challenges of helping the Amish comply with the program’s new requirements illustrate that laws passed in Albany can have complexities when being implemented in a state with a diverse population.
“It’s new for everyone,” Fisher said, “not just the Amish.”