Keep eye on STAR

It wasn’t intentional, but state Sen. Catharine Young has exposed the flaws in the state’s STAR program in a way a million state comptroller’s audits never could.

Last week, Sen. Young and her husband discovered they were improperly receiving a STAR exemption on a condominium they own in East Greenbush, N.Y., in addition to their primary residence in Olean. After some investigating, they discovered they had never even filed a STAR application for the home in East Greenbush. Someone in the East Greenbush assessor’s office carried the exemption over from the previous property owner after the property was sold. If the taxes are held in escrow as is the case with most mortgages, it would have been nearly impossible for the Youngs to have caught the error. How many mortgage-paying property owners call their assessor to see if there are any improperly claimed tax exemptions on their property?

This was not a Cathy Young issue.

At issue is the state’s inability to administer a simple program.

The STAR program isn’t that complicated. New York’s STAR program provides a partial exemption from school taxes for most owner-occupied, primary residences. Basic STAR exemptions are available for an owner-occupied, primary residence where the income of owners and their spouses totals less than $500,000. The state’s enhanced STAR program provides an additional benefit for the primary residences of senior citizens with incomes of $74,100 or less.

Simple, right?

Nothing is that easy in New York. Thomas DiNapoli, state comptroller, recently released a report estimating, between 2010-11, one in five STAR exemptions should not have been granted because the property owner was either taking more than one exemption or was otherwise ineligible.

Statewide, DiNapoli’s research showed the state lost about $13 million in 2010-11 with a potential cost of $75 million by 2015.

We find it hard to believe the state doesn’t have a better system to track STAR exemptions. DiNapoli suggests local assessors have access to statewide property databases so they can track STAR exemptions outside their community. DiNapoli also suggests state officials require a unique identifier to more easily monitor STAR exemptions; develop mechanisms that allow local assessors to search for duplicates in the real property assessment databases maintained by New York state and other states and that state policymakers consider getting electronic tools and software to analyze real property assessment records to identify improper exemptions.

State legislators should take DiNapoli’s advice to heart.

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