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Tax break ‘good in theory’

New assessment relief law aims to help storm victims, but towns, schools, counties may opt out

December 15, 2011
By CHRIS MORRIS - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

A new state law aims to help property owners impacted by storms earlier this year, but without financial assistance from the state, local governments may not implement it.

Signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week, the Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee Assessment Relief Act lets local governments and school districts provide tax relief - including refunds - to people whose property was significantly devalued by the storms, which occurred between Aug. 26 and Sept. 7.

The law covers 34 counties, including Essex and Clinton, that were declared federal disaster areas. It lets eligible municipalities - defined as any village, town, city or school district wholly or partially within a designated county, or a county itself - grant 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 would mean school districts would refund some of such property owners' taxes billed in September, and towns and counties would do the same for their taxes billed in January.

Article Photos

Angie and Russ Cook’s house on state Route 73 in Keene Valley, seen here on Wednesday, is jacked up to be repaired following major damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene. A new state law might provide tax assessment relief for the Cooks, but Angie Cook said if it threatens the town’s financial situation, she wouldn’t pursue it.
(Photo — Martha Allen)

To opt into the law, a municipality must pass a resolution adopting its provisions by Jan. 23, 2012. Geoff Gloak of the state Office of Real Property Services said once that happens, a property owner 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. That evidence could include photographs, insurance statements or paperwork from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"It's going to be the assessor's determination, really," Gloak said. He stressed that the law applies to an entire parcel, not just a building.

According to Gloak, tentative assessment rolls are generally based on the condition a property is in as of the "taxable status date," 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."

That's the problem faced by many taxpayers in hard hit communities like the towns of Keene and Jay, which Irene hit hard when brooks and rivers raged over their banks Aug. 28. But unlike the person whose house burngs down, Irene victims now have a chance for tax relief.

Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas and Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee held a meeting Wednesday morning with Donna Bramer, assessor for both towns; Charlie Lewis, director of Essex County Real Property Tax Services; and Todd Anthony from ORPS. Douglas told the Enterprise the meeting focused on the law and its implications.

Douglas said that according to Bramer, between 44 and 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 noted that his town has already borrowed $3 million to clean up and rebuild public works after Irene, including road and bridge repairs, and the town is still waiting for federal relief from flooding that started in the spring. He said he would love to be able to go to those 44 to 52 taxpayers and say, "Look, I've got something for you; we're going to reduce your property taxes."

But Douglas said that's something the town can't afford to do.

"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, said 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 and her family are temporarily living nearby in a home owned by someone she knows through her employer.

Cook said 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 Sen. Betty Little told the Enterprise the law was written with the intent of giving local governments the ability to opt out. The state couldn't fund the tax relief itself but still gave local governments a way to do it, she explained.

Little said Sen. Jim Seward has introduced legislation that would 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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