ALBANY -- State property tax rebate checks are not reaching thousands of qualified homeowners in a timely manner, and lawmakers say that will hurt many lower-income residents and seniors who counted on the funds to help pay their local property taxes.
Nonie Manion, the state tax department’s executive deputy commissioner, endured a barrage of lawmakers' criticism who have been besieged with complaints from constituents who thought they were getting rebate checks last September but, in many cases, are still waiting in February.
Assemblyman Raymond Walter, an Amherst Republican, said the tax department showed “pure incompetence” in handling the rebate program.
“The fact is the governor requested the STAR rebate program be put in place, then never had a working process to implement it and now taxpayers are bearing the costs. The governor can try to blame localities all he wants, but the reality is his administration’s ineptitude is denying our constituents their hard-earned money,’’ Walter said.
The delay in rebate checks getting came to light during a budget hearing held by a joint fiscal panel of the Assembly and Senate. A couple of rebate check programs under the state’s STAR property tax program have been delayed.
Instead of an upfront savings reflected on their local property tax bill, parts of the STAR program were changed to provide a rebate check to qualified homeowners. Part of the idea was to give something to voters to open in their mail prior to election day and part was to employ new ways for Albany – instead of local governments – to ensure only qualified taxpayers were getting the property tax break.
But the system collapsed in many ways, with state tax officials unable to process all the information on a timely basis. Computer software programs could not even be developed to cross-check a taxpayer’s eligibility, forcing the tax agency to turn to manual labor to go through reams of tax data.
Consumers complained about long holds – three hours or more – on a tax agency help line that critics said didn’t offer consumers a toll-free calling option. And when taxpayers could get through to a human, answers often were not provided about the whereabouts of their rebate checks, lawmakers complained.
“We feel the pain of not being able to answer questions,’’ Manion told lawmakers about the call center complaints.
Delays in getting rebate checks have been felt by seniors who may not earn enough to submit personal income tax filings or who were not computer savvy enough to accurately fill out an online STAR form, lawmakers said.
Others hit by rebate delays were people who purchased a home after August 1, 2015, a group who had to go through a new STAR filing process in order to receive rebate checks. The situation left many homeowners without help from STAR when their local school property taxes were due last September.
One lawmaker said some of his constituents late in getting a rebate check had to borrow to pay the property tax bill.
Tax officials Tuesday would not say how many people are still awaiting STAR rebate checks. The amounts of the rebate checks varied across the state, but could be a couple hundred dollars or more in upstate areas.
“I, like my colleagues, have a lot of upset, frustrated constituents,’’ Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, told Manion.
“Obviously, it’s an unworkable system,’’ Young added, openly wondering why the tax agency failed to be prepared for the start of the new system that lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had approved earlier in the year.
But the tax agency official sought to place some of the blame on the 1,000 or so local tax assessors across New York for turning over incorrect information to the state about homeowners in their communities.
Manion said a key problem has been the “quality of information” transmitted by local tax assessors to the state tax department.
“In the end, they don’t have the resources to get it done so we accept it and take some of the burden ourselves to try to interpret it,’’ she said of local assessors.
Local assessors were incensed by the claims.
“Did she say they were not getting the right information from the assessors?’’ Teri Ross, president of the New York State Assessors Association, said of one lawmaker when she testified later in the afternoon.
“Absolutely not,’’ Ross added.
Ross said local assessors are the ones who send reminders to get taxpayers to sign up for their STAR benefits or go out to seniors’ homes to verify income information. She said assessors have tried to work with the state tax department, but said the agency in Albany “has put up a roadblock” with almost every suggestion by the local assessors.
“I don’t see this program ever working,’’ Ross added.