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What you need to know about Erie County's property tax bill mess

The recent $4.4 million overbilling on Erie County tax bills has resulted in headaches for town clerks and county staffers, apologies from county officials, and confusion for taxpayers.

Most of the county property tax bills that arrived in the mail list amounts that are more than property owners really owe.

So should property owners pay what the bill says?

The short answer is yes. And then wait for your refund.

Based on a review of revised tax rates provided to The Buffalo News, homeowners in cities and larger towns can expect refunds ranging from roughly $33 on a home assessed at $100,000 in the Town of Tonawanda to $10 on a similarly assessed home in Buffalo or $3 in Clarence.

Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte told unhappy county legislators last week that the billing error is costing the county $83,385 in stationery, printing, mailing and overtime costs. County Executive Mark Poloncarz offered brief apologies on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

He initially said he ordered corrected bills to be immediately issued. But days later, in response to a swift backlash from town clerks and tax receivers, the administration backtracked and said property owners should pay the original tax bills and expect a refund and corrected tax statement a few weeks later.

Political criticism has been sharp. Legislators demanded to know where to pin the blame and discussed taking further action to ensure such a mistake doesn't occur again.

Whyte, the administration's lead spokeswoman at Friday's Legislature meeting, gave elected officials a clear timeline of what transpired.

"My intent is to share with you what happened to cause the error, what actions we took to address it and why, and what we will do to ensure it doesn't happen again," Whyte said. "Before proceeding, however, I believe it is appropriate to apologize again. As the county executive said in his statement, this mistake is utterly unacceptable, and the administration apologizes to all those affected."

Whose fault is this?

Two county departments dropped the ball on this: the Department of Budget and Finance and the Department of Real Property Tax Services. In the past, Joseph Maciejewski, director of tax services, talked every year with Budget Director Robert Keating before the county issued the tax bills. As part of that conversation, Maciejewski asked Keating about a technical "chargeback" tax calculation related to SUNY Erie that affected the tax rates.

But Maciejewski abruptly retired from his job in June after the county began an investigation into "inappropriate remarks" he made at a Buffalo conference. He died last month. His interim replacement was unaware of the need to ask for an updated chargeback figure, and it did not occur to the budget director to provide it.

At Friday's meeting, Keating assumed the brunt of the blame for failing to recognize that a key piece of tax information was missing from the tax department's calculations, even though it is the tax services department's responsibility to calculate the proper figure.

"I feel horrible about it," Keating said. "I’m thoroughly embarrassed about it."

Whyte said those responsible for the error will face disciplinary consequences.

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Did everyone receive an inflated tax bill?

No. The county sends out tax bills in waves. For communities with fewer than 10,000 residents, the incorrect bills had not yet been mailed. Those residents will receive a correct tax bill and are unaffected by this mess.

Unaffected communities include the towns of Boston, Brant, Colden, Collins, Concord, Eden, Holland, Marilla, Newstead, North Collins, Sardinia and Wales.

Homeowners in all other cities and towns should expect refund checks if they pay the incorrect bills, which have already been sent out, on time.

First county officials said corrected bills would be issued, then changed its mind and told taxpayers to pay their original bill on time and expect a refund if there was a mistake. What's going on?

Poloncarz originally demanded that corrected tax bills be sent out right away. But that decision was made without consulting the town clerks and tax receivers in the cities and large towns, many of whom said that if the county tried to send out corrected tax bills, it would wreak havoc with their software systems and create hundreds of hours of manpower issues for local clerk's offices.

After considerable backlash, a compromise requires all county property owners to pay their original tax bills on time. After a period of reconciliation, anyone owed a refund will receive a refund check and corrected tax statement.

Those who pay their bills by the Feb. 18 tax deadline may receive a refund in March. Those who pay late will receive any applicable refund this summer.

Why not just credit next year's bill with the over charge? That would be easiest and cheapest.

For two reasons: First, county officials said that out of a sense of fairness and accountability, county officials should not hang onto taxpayer money that it should never have collected in the first place. Second, without going through special accounting gyrations, hanging onto $4.4 million in unwarranted property taxes would jeopardize the county's ability to stay under the state-imposed tax cap for the 2020 budget.

Shouldn't the county extend the tax payment deadline since this was their error? 

They can't. The Erie County Tax Act does not permit any change in payment deadlines barring some sort of catastrophic emergency.

So will any refunds come with interest? 

Good question. The Buffalo News asked this and was told the county attorney's office was still looking into this.

The county said taxpayers would be owed about 6 cents for every $1,000 assessed property value. So can I do some simple math on my own to come up with a good estimate?

Unfortunately, no. The "average" refund is 6 cents per $1,000, but almost nobody pays that average. Based on updated information requested by The Buffalo News, there is a significant refund range from one municipality to the next.

Communities that have the highest number of students leaving Erie County to attend a community college elsewhere will see the biggest refunds. And remember, small communities of 10,000 residents or less will receive no refunds at all.

Poloncarz has just appointed former Deputy Budget Director Scott Bylewski to serve as the new director of the Real Property Tax Services Department. Does this reflect on him? Will it hurt his Legislature confirmation?

Given the strong Democratic majority in the County Legislature, this is unlikely to hinder Bylewski's appointment, though he certainly doesn't go into the job with much goodwill. Members of the Republican-supported minority had accused Bylewski of being underqualified.

Bylewski and other county officials have said Bylewski was responsible for capital projects and audits as deputy budget director and had no responsibility for relaying the information that led to the error.

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