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All New York homeowners become eligible for school tax reductions this year under the state's STAR program.

There is one simple but crucial requirement -- the property tax breaks will be granted only to those who apply. Discarding applications or missing deadlines are not acceptable excuses.

"If you miss the filing date -- if you come in the next day -- it just doesn't count," said Amherst Assessor Harry Williams. "You could call the governor himself, and it still wouldn't make any difference."

The School Tax Relief Exemption program was launched last year with tax breaks for 600,000 homeowners age 65 and older with annual incomes of $60,000 or less.

This year, exemptions are available to all people -- regardless of age or income -- who own and live in one-, two- and three-family houses, condominiums or mobile homes. State officials estimate that about 3 million people become eligible this year for the first time.

The filing deadline is Feb. 8 in Buffalo and March 1 in Lackawanna and the City of Tonawanda, as well as in Niagara, Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. June 1 is the deadline in Erie County towns and also in Batavia and Lockport. Dunkirk is the only local municipality with a May 1 deadline.

Officials urge residents to pay close attention to public notices and to informational mailings about the STAR program.

"People toss them out without looking at them and without realizing that they're eligible this year," said Joseph T. Pierson, public information director for the state Office of Real Property Services. "A lot of people think you have to be a senior or meet some income test."

Under the plan, $10,000 of the full market value of a home will be exempt from school taxes. In 2000-01, the exemption would rise to $20,000, and an additional $10,000 in value would be exempted in 2001-02, according to the state plan. Recipients of those "basic STAR" benefits do not have to reapply from year to year unless they move.

"Enhanced STAR" benefits -- which became available last year for people 65 or older with incomes of $60,000 or less -- are even more generous. Homeowners who receive them have $50,000 of the value of their home exempt from school taxes. However, those taxpayers must reapply each year since their incomes can fluctuate.

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