Brushing off criticism that he was rejecting for political reasons the proposed five-year phase in of the Town’s new assessments, and thereby tossing under the bus those financially strapped homeowners in Edgemont, Irvington and other parts of the Town facing assessment hikes of 25% or more – and automatic property tax hikes next year of $10,000 or more – Town Supervisor Paul Feiner today doubled down and expressed optimism Albany would instead grant the Town’s request for authority for a three-year phase in of tax hikes.
He expressed hope that Assemblyman Sandy Galef, who represents Ossining, which is also experiencing a painful reassessment, and chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Real Property Taxation, will draft and win approval for whatever legislation the Town wants, the details of which are still being discussed.
However, the chances of any such legislation being enacted at all are nil.
First, it will be extremely difficult to enact such legislation for only two of New York’s towns, when all other towns in New York that have undertaken reassessment over the past thirty years have managed to get by without such relief.
It will therefore be difficult for Ms. Galef to persuade her colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, representing those other towns, why taxpayers in Ossining and Greenburgh who had been grossly under assessed in the past should be singled out for protection when similarly impacted taxpayers in their jurisdictions were not.
Ms. Galef will also face difficulty from her Republican colleagues in Nassau County which tried to enact similar legislation in 1981 to protect historically under assessed homes there – only to have Hugh Carey, the Democratic governor at the time, veto the bill. The veto was overridden by the Republican controlled legislature, but the legislation was effectively gutted years later in the courts — something Republican legislators will not soon forget.
Finally, Ms. Galef will face difficulty from the sheer fact that the state has two mitigation measures already in place – the Homestead Tax Option and the five-year phase in – and both Greenburgh and Ossining will have rejected them both. It is very hard to ask state legislatures to intervene when the measures already in place to provide such help are summarily rejected.
Indeed, even if such legislation were to pass both the Assembly and the Senate, which is unlikely, it is even more unlikely that Governor Cuomo, who late last year rejected for the second year in a row Greenburgh’s request for authority to charge a hotel tax, would decide now was the right time to throw Greenburgh’s town government a lifeline.
Governor Cuomo is not likely to risk being ridiculed by Republican legislators for bailing out local Democratic officials like Mr. Feiner who knowingly failed to plan for and then implement proper mitigation measures he knew were needed – and promised on videotape to implement – long before undertaking reassessment in the first place.
The legislation that Mr. Feiner is suggesting also appears to be missing some fundamental concepts — like who will pay for the tax relief he’s seeking?
For one thing, if the idea is to phase in tax hikes over a three-year period only for those homeowners whose assessments increased by 25% or more, how exactly would the resulting shortfall in revenue each year be made up?
Mr. Feiner suggested that the tax relief may work like the School Tax Assessment Relief program or STAR, in which every homeowner gets an automatic $30,000 reduction in their assessment for school tax purposes, provided they certify their incomes are less than $500,000.
But for every dollar not paid in school taxes because of STAR, the State of New York makes up in the form of state aid to the school district.
Mr. Feiner suggested that STAR might be extended to town, county and fire taxes, but the idea that the State would now subsidize historically under-assessed taxpayers in Ossining and Greenburgh seems ludicrous, even for Mr. Feiner.
If the State is not willing to subsidize the shortfall, the only other way to do it is to increase the tax levy on everyone else. The only way to do that though is to create two separate tax rates – a lower tax rate for taxpayers whose assessments increased by 25% or more and whose tax hikes would be phased in over three years – and a higher tax rate for all other taxpayers.
It is difficult to imagine how the Town plans to come up with software to manage that kind of program.
More fundamentally, though, it is difficult to believe Mr. Feiner thinks that having two separate tax rates for residential taxpayers, even if only for three years, is an idea that will fly even in Greenburgh, must less in Albany.
Then there is Mr. Feiner ‘s idea of restricting the tax phase in to those homeowners who apply for it and submit to an interior inspection of their homes. The Town’s tax assessor Edye McCarthy, who has been waging a campaign against enacting the five-year phase in, believes inspections are needed to root out those homeowners whose assessments increased because they had renovations done without first getting a building permit from the Town.
In other words, homeowners who are desperate for financial relief will first have to agree to have the Town’s tax assessor inspect their home before being deemed eligible for such aid. Some might see a proposal like that as not just robbing residents financially, but adding insult to injury by robbing them of their dignity too.
Nevertheless, Mr. Feiner insists that his three-year tax phase in idea which, suffice to say, stands virtually no chance of being adopted, is still somehow better to approve Wednesday evening than the state-sanctioned five-year phase in that, at his direction, the Town Board plans to vote down.
Mr. Feiner’s principal argument against the five-year phase in is that a lawyer from the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance has interpreted the statute so as to require that tax hikes be frontloaded in the first year. In fact, the statute mandates that the new assessments, up or down, be phased in at 20% increments every year until everyone is paying their fair share.
Moreover, there is nothing in the statute’s wording that requires any such interpretation and the lawyer himself conceded that interpreting the statute would be up to the Town.
None of that seems to matter, however, to Mr. Feiner, who said at Tuesday’s work session that he fears that if the Town were to interpret the statute, its interpretation would be challenged in court. Why he assumes the town would lose in court should that happen is anyone’s guess.
The real reason Mr. Feiner won’t support the five-year phase is, of course, political. He fears that phasing in reduced assessments will delay tax relief to those who had been over-assessed and that such taxpayers will resent not getting their relief right away.
But if Mr. Feiner’s three-year tax phase in were ever approved, these same taxpayers will still end up paying a higher levy to subsidize those who had been grossly under-assessed. But because there is no chance that his three-year tax phase in will ever be approved, Mr. Feiner doesn’t have to worry about that ever happening.