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Editorial: State needs to rethink STAR

Sunday, August 31, 2014
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Predictably, tens of thousands of New York property taxpayers waited until the last minute to renew their STAR exemption last December.

But for one reason or another, roughly 11 percent of the 2.7 million previously enrolled in the program — including some 825 in Schenectady - never got the job done.

If the goal of the exercise was to save money by winnowing enrollment, it was an unqualified success:

The state, which reimburses school districts for the total of the tax relief they grant through STAR, will see its $3.2 billion tab for the program reduced by some $350 million.

And while there were likely tens of thousands among the 300,000 newly unenrolled who didn’t deserve the exemption (because they were taking it on rental properties or second homes), we’d hazard a guess that far more won’t be getting it because they simply didn’t know they had to reapply.

That’s cause for concern — especially for people, like retirees, who needed the break to make ends meet.

There are always going to be people who blow a deadline - whether they’re procrastinators, were away and didn’t hear about it, or are simply clueless. Just as the government found several years back when it forced TV viewers to change from analog to digital receivers, all the reminders in the world don’t work for some people. A lot of people.

And there weren’t even that many reminders for the STAR renewal requirement. The state did a mailing but, according to one local county tax official, it was so “generic-looking” it could have easily been mistaken for junk mail. Local assessors wanted to follow up by personally contacting taxpayers who hadn’t reapplied, but the state wouldn’t provide their names until after the deadline had passed.

STAR is unquestionably a popular program, but because the state has to make up whatever amount is forgiven, it’s really little more than a shell game — at least for income taxpayers. And there are far more of them than people (e.g. retirees) whose only tax bill is on their residence.

In addition to the tax relief it reimburses school districts, the state spends tens of millions of dollars each year just administering STAR. That seems a waste. A more efficient approach would be to simply increase aid to school districts so they wouldn’t have to raise as much money through property taxes.

Given the state’s 2 percent tax cap, as well as the need to get voter approval on operating budgets, it’s not as if they’d be able to raise spending disproportionately.

As for STAR, if it is to survive at all, it should be as it was originally conceived - a way to provide relief for lower-income seniors who otherwise might be driven from their homes.

 
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