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EARLIER DEADLINES FOR STAR APPLICATIONS RAISE FEARS THAT SOME WILL BE LEFT BEHIND

Assessors in Erie County's townships are about to experience a time crunch.

The deadlines for all of the real property operations -- including STAR tax exemptions -- were moved up by a month this year, from June 1 to May 1.

Though the move drew nearly universal support, its effect on STAR applications for senior citizens has been a concern for assessors.

Seniors must apply annually with their town or city for the New York State tax reduction program, supplying income tax information, in order to cut their school taxes by an average of 45 percent statewide.

"A lot of people wait until April 15 to file their income tax," said Tonawanda Assessor Dave Unmack. "Where they had 1 1/2 months before (to file for STAR), now they have two weeks, a compressed filing period."

Amherst Assessor Harry Williams said the change will also affect how his town handles the STAR process. In the past, his office has sent out application notices, followed them with reminder notices and then telephoned prospective applicants.

"This year, because of time constraints, we may not be able to do one of those steps," Williams said. "We may not do a reminder, but we will do the phone calls."

Further confusing the situation for many seniors, though, is the fact that other municipalities use different dates. Most of the rest of New York State uses a March 1 deadline, but Buffalo and Lackawanna use Dec. 1; Niagara Falls, Jan. 1; the City of Dunkirk, May 1; and the cities of Batavia and Lockport, June 1. The towns of Batavia and Dunkirk use March 1.

"The difficulty is there are going to be people who are going to miss it" despite the towns' efforts, Williams said.

The May 1 deadline -- officially known as the taxable status date -- also applies to veterans, agricultural, disabled and any other exemptions.

The benefits that convinced assessors, the Erie County Legislature, County Executive Joel A. Giambra and eventually Gov. George E. Pataki to sign off on the date change include moving up the date for assessment grievance day and for finalization of the tax rolls.

"It's a much more taxpayer-friendly assessment calendar," said Joseph Maciejewski, Erie County's deputy commissioner for real property.

"It moves grievance day into the first week of June. Last year, it fell on the Fourth of July, and we had to get a resolution passed by the County Legislature to make it July 5."

In addition to moving grievance day out of a holiday week, it also moves the date for assessments to be finalized to July 1 instead of Aug. 1.

"Schools didn't always have time to set their tax rate (after they received the tax rolls and before school started)," said Orchard Park Assessor A. Terrance Campbell. "Now, logistically, it's going to work better."

One of the one-time quirks of the change will be that only 11 months worth of new construction will be added to the rolls, Amherst's Williams said.

But on the other hand, said Maciejewski, "You're going to see assessors have vacations in July for the first time in years."

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