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A mobile home uprooted by Irene. Photo by Kathy Regan.
A mobile home uprooted by Irene. Photo by Kathy Regan.

Towns can't afford state's flood property tax break

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A new state law aims to help property owners hurt by storms earlier this year.

The Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee Assessment Relief Act was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month.

It lets local governments and school districts provide tax relief - including refunds - to people whose property was significantly devalued by the storms in late August and early September.

But as Chris Morris reports, some local governments may not implement the law without financial assistance from the state.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

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The law covers 34 counties, including Essex and Clinton, that were declared federal disaster areas. It lets eligible municipalities grant tax assessment relief to property owners who saw their entire parcel’s value diminished by more than 50 percent as a result of the storms.

That means school districts would refund some taxes billed in September, and towns and counties would do the same for their taxes billed in January.

Geoff Gloak of the state Office of Real Property Services says property owners would need to provide evidence to an assessor that the value of their property was reduced by 50 percent or more as a result of the storms.

He says tentative assessments rolls are generally based on a property’s condition as of March 1. “If you own a home, and God forbid your home burns down March 2, when you get your school tax bill in September and then your county and town tax bill in January, it’s going to be based on the condition of that property on March 1,” Gloak said. “So in other words, you’re going to pay taxes on your property as if your house was still there.”

But unlike the person whose house burns down, the new state law gives Irene victims a chance for tax relief, if local governments can afford it.

Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas says up to 52 properties in the town of Jay would qualify for assessment relief. If all those property owners file for refunds, Douglas estimated it would cost $500,000 to $600,000.

“Here’s my problem with it: In theory, it’s a great idea, but it doesn’t do anything for us,” he said. “It just shifts the costs. Unless I’m interpreting it wrong, we’ve already passed our budgets, we stayed within the 2 percent property tax cap on the town levels, and now you want us to go back to the same budgets in 2012 and reimburse property taxes. Where are we going to get that?”

Douglas notes that his town has already borrowed $3 million to clean up and rebuild after Irene, and the town is still waiting for federal relief from flooding that started in the spring.

He says he would love to give taxpayers a break, but the town can’t afford it. “You can’t get blood from a stone,” he said. “It’s not that I wouldn’t want to. But this doesn’t help. It’s just a cost shift to other taxpaying citizens, and I just can’t do it. I’d have to borrow the money to do it.”

Angie Cook, who along with her husband Russ owns a home on state Route 73 in Keene Valley, says her property was damaged to the tune of $50,000 to $60,000. They bought it for about $114,000, so it may or may not qualify for tax relief.

The house itself currently sits on stilts about 10 feet off the ground, being repaired.

Cook says it would be beneficial to take advantage of the assessment relief, but she added that if taking a refund would add to the town’s financial burden, she couldn’t do it.

“We had so many people come into our home after the flood, and Bill Ferebee was one of them,” Cook said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without everyone who surrounded us through this whole thing. I would feel a little bit like I was stabbing the hand that feeds me by doing that.”

State Senator Betty Little says the law was written to allow local governments to opt out. She says the state couldn’t fund the tax relief itself but still gave local governments a way to do it.

She says legislation has been introduced in the Senate to provide a tax credit to property owners who saw their homes devalued by the storms. “I don’t know if there’s funding for that at this time,” Little said, “but I think that we’ll look at a lot of these things in January and see what we can do.”

 

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