ALBANY – Few New Yorkers will accuse the state tax department of acting in lightning fast ways when it comes to sending out income tax refunds or property tax rebate checks.
The Department of Taxation and Finance, hit with stinging criticism the last couple years over the tardy arrival of more than $1 billion in special checks that are supposed to lessen the sting of rising property taxes, already has churned out 350,000 checks to New Yorkers.
That’s well in advance of a state law intended to get checks for school property taxpayers before residents must make the local property school tax payments at the end of September.
Why is this happening relatively quickly this year for a program begun several years ago that requires the checks – “to the greatest extent possible” – to be sent by Albany to eligible residents by October each year?
A cynic might wonder if it has anything to do with getting checks into voters’ hands in advance of the Sept. 13 primary challenge Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is facing from activist Cynthia Nixon. But the administration said that is not the case.
In an email response earlier this week, tax department spokesman Cary Ziter pointed to a few other reasons: the agency now has three years of experience running the current iteration of a property tax check program; there is better coordination between the state and the local tax assessor offices that supply Albany with key information about local property taxes; and the agency has “improved computer systems and business processes."
Also, said Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi, the program was designed to be a prospective credit to help residents pay a portion of their local school tax bill. The goal, then, is to get the checks to New Yorkers before those school tax payments are due across the state by the end of September, he said.
The agency took a pounding from lawmakers over the past couple of years over the late timing of the checks being distributed. Officials earlier this year promised that the 2018 round of checks would go more smoothly and be done on time.
By mid-October, the agency expects to have sent all checks to 2 million people eligible to receive them.
For upstate homeowners, that will typically mean a check totaling less than $200.
The program is eligible to homeowners who reside in a school district that complies with the state’s annual property tax cap program, gets a Basic or Enhanced STAR exemption or credit, have incomes under $275,000 and paid school property taxes in 2017. The check amount varies based on a resident’s income level and is a percentage of a resident’s Basic STAR savings.
The state for years has had some sort of property tax check program – once called “rebates” and now called “credits." For all of them, the goal – for the program’s supporters – was to get the checks out in the mail shortly before elections are held around the state in the fall.