Friday, September 26, 2008

Albany Giveth, And Albany Taketh Away

Property Tax Rebate Checks To Be Offset By Decrease In STAR Payments To School Districts

There they go again!

Putting money in one pocket (the annual, pre-election STAR Rebate check, your reminder to vote on November 4), while picking the other pocket (by a decrease in the STAR exemption, which Albany lawmakers won't tell you about) at the same time.

Yes, the sleight of hand, played with our tax dollars, impacting where? On YOUR wallet, of course.

Those STAR Rebate checks -- to be sent automatically this year -- will begin to show up in homeowners' mailboxes in October.

Rebates will range from $0, for those with 2006 combined incomes of $250,000 or more, to $799.85, for those qualified for Enhanced STAR.

Click HERE to determine the amount of your rebate check, and the expected mailing date.

The decrease in the STAR Exemption, as enacted by our State Legislature and signed into law by the Governor, will cost the "average" homeowner somewhere in the neighborhood of $320. [Will the "average" homeowner on Long Island please raise his hand?]

Net-Net, Long Island homeowners may well see a wash as they STAR-gaze at that Rebate check. Best case scenario -- chump change in your pocket (use it to help pay for the Wall Street bailout); worst case -- an out-of-pocket loss of, perhaps, of hundreds of dollars, all added on to your property tax bill. [The one they hope you'll never notice.]

Okay, so Albany faces the same fiscal crunch the feds -- and the rest of us -- must contend with. Money -- and credit -- are tight. Deficits are on the rise. Shortfalls must be made up for.

We all understand that.

So, why not cancel, or temporarily postpone the STAR Rebates. At the very least, tell the taxpayer about the reduction in the STAR payments to school districts (a reduction which the homeowner will be held liable for in a corresponding increase in, yes, the dreaded school property tax).

What? You can't do that in an election year?

Oh. Sorry. We forgot, for a moment there, just how easy it has been to spend our money, and how difficult it is to tell the taxpayers the cold, hard truth!
- - -
From Newsday:

Don't cash your STAR rebate, assessor says

Long Island homeowners might want to bank those STAR rebate checks that are due from the state next month.

That way, they could use the money to make up for upcoming losses in their STAR tax exemptions.

In what some local government officials regard as political sleight-of-hand, Albany is preparing to send out annual tax-rebate checks ranging from $240 to $555, while reducing another form of tax assistance to most school districts. Both forms are part of the state's annual program of STAR school-tax relief.

The other type of STAR payments -- those going directly to school districts -- are due to drop this year in most localities, state authorities say. Nassau County officials say this will drive up homeowners' tax bills there by as much as $320.

Yesterday, County Assessor Harvey Levinson blasted Albany's two-handed approach as "wasteful and self-aggrandizing." Levinson also implied that the state's approach was sneaky -- an accusation denied by aides to Gov. David A. Paterson and state legislative leaders.

"I can understand why state lawmakers opted not to inform homeowners (in their many taxpayer-funded mailings) that they were responsible for increasing this year's school property tax burden," Levinson declared in a statement issued yesterday.

Levinson, a Democrat who is retiring next month, also contends that the state could save localities millions of dollars in paperwork if it folded the money now allocated for rebate checks into the payments going to school districts.

Rebate checks are mailed out under the state's imprint just before November's elections. In contrast, STAR payments to school districts are far more difficult for homeowners to track, because such payments are reflected only indirectly in the tax bills issued by counties and towns.

Nassau's tax bills go out early next month. In Suffolk County, where bills go out in December, some town officials in charge of assessments also expect the drop in STAR payments to negatively affect taxpayers.

However, these authorities expect effects to be slight, and some question Levinson's emphasis on the issue.

"The average loss here would only be about $5 -- you'd never notice it," said one Huntington official who asked not to be named.

In Albany, state government leaders describe their curbs on STAR payments to school districts as an effort to balance an increasingly precarious budget.

Last spring, Paterson, a Democrat, and legislative leaders from both parties agreed that STAR payments to school districts could drop by as much as 10 percent, compared to payments made the year before. That would save the state an estimated $110 million, according to the governor's budget office.

At the time, the agreement on reduced STAR payments was not mentioned in a news release issued by the governor's office. Paterson aides note, however, that the reductions were mentioned in a 130-page executive budget booklet.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for the State Senate's Republican majority, said leaders on that side initially opposed STAR reductions, but reluctantly agreed as part of an overall compromise that included a $1.75-billion boost in state aid for school operations.

"It was a difficult decision that was made in the context of balancing the budget," Reif added.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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