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The ball is now on the court of taxpayers who have complained bitterly about their property-tax bills.

School property-tax relief is on the way through a new state law. But in most cases, only those who formally apply will get tax reductions.

Taxpayers who fail to file a basic, one-page form will miss out on substantial savings.

"People have to file, and we'll make them aware of it," said Leslie Lewis, superintendent of Cheektowaga Central Schools. "But they have to initiate it."

Filing deadlines for the School Tax Relief Exemption vary, and homeowners should pay close attention to information provided by local assessors and school districts.

The first filing deadline -- Dec. 1 -- is for senior citizens in Buffalo and Lackawanna with incomes of less than $60,000, although all residential property owners are eligible. Buffalo officials have set up telephone hot lines and have scheduled a series of informational meetings at senior citizen centers, said Joseph Sole, commissioner of assessment.

Elsewhere, school districts and assessors plan to keep taxpayers informed through notices in their tax bills, newsletters, public meetings and media advisories.

"I think there's a lot of confusion right now," said Jacqueline Paone, spokeswoman for Williamsville Central Schools. "There's a lot of educating that needs to be done."

At the same time, Ms. Paone stressed, the final
responsibility will rest with individual homeowners.

"It's just like anything else," she said. "We can tell people over and over, but there will always be people who say: 'You didn't tell us.' "

In response to public concern about rising property taxes, the State Legislature enacted the tax-relief plan -- commonly called the STAR program -- earlier this year. It provides exemptions to homeowners on their school taxes, but not on their city, county, town or village levies. The state, in turn, will reimburse school districts for lost revenue, so the school districts do not lose anything in promoting the tax cut.

Exemptions cover only owner-occupied primary residences, including condominiums and cooperative apartments. Business property does not qualify.

The program will be phased-in and provides an extra measure of relief for homeowners who are 65 or older and have an annual household income of less than $60,000. In the 2001-02 school year, the full value of their properties will be reduced by $50,000 for school-tax purposes, meaning that those living in modest homes could pay no school taxes.

In that "enhanced" STAR category, the first benefits will be realized in the 1998-99 school year.

About 50 senior citizens greeted that provision enthusiastically Wednesday in the Polish Cadets Hall on Grant Street, where city officials outlined the details.

"I'm in for this," said Bill Gullo. "Every time you turn around, they're raising taxes."

Tom Parrish, a Plymouth Avenue homeowner, had similar feelings.

"It's about time they give senior citizens something they deserve," he said. "We pay all these taxes and don't get anything for it."

For everyone but moderate-income senior citizens, a full-value exemption of $30,000 will be reached in the 2001-02 school year. In that "basic" STAR program, tax relief begins in 1999-2000.

The benefits are to remain permanent at the fully phased-in level.

Homeowners who already receive senior citizen exemptions will automatically qualify for additional STAR benefits. All other property owners must file applications.

School officials also have welcomed the plan, saying it will provide relief for hard-pressed taxpayers. At the same time, they questioned whether the state, now benefiting from the booming stock market, will be able to support the STAR program in leaner times. When fully implemented, the plan will cost an estimated $2.2 billion a year statewide.

"That's a considerable amount of money," said James P. Mazgajewski, superintendent of the Cheektowaga-Sloan School District. "I'm hoping it doesn't go away."

Lewis, the Cheektowaga Central superintendent, shared those concerns. "The state says they're going to do it," he said. "Do I believe it? Time will tell."

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