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N.Y. Senior Property Tax Break More Confusing Than Most

To qualify, seniors must apply to their town annually to prove they have incomes low enough to qualify – a maximum salary of $37,400. But, for many, the requirements and processes are convoluted and difficult to meet.

(TNS) — Senior citizens are baring their financial affairs in town halls across New York state in a frustrating effort to prove their incomes are low enough to qualify for a property tax break of up to 50 percent.

For many, the papers in their manila folders are not good enough.

Assessors send people home, sometimes two or three times, to dig up a tax return for the correct year or IRA statements or a long list of other documents.

One woman even held up a stack of prescription drug receipts Wednesday in the hallway of the Clay Town Hall. Unreimbursed medical expenses can be used to reduce your income, helping you qualify for higher property tax breaks.

After about 20 minutes of turning over records, though, the woman was turned away because her tax return said she had income from an IRA that she said she does not have.

“I don’t care,” she said, her eyes filling with tears over her mask. “I don’t remember. I’m a 68-year-old woman. I’m disabled. I’ve been here three times. Give me a break. What’s wrong with this country?”

New York state has long been criticized for setting up property tax break programs that offer more grief than relief. But the low-income senior exemption is especially frustrating, assessors say.

Most people don’t even know it exists. Almost no one understands how to qualify, how often to apply or that it is not Enhanced STAR.

The exemption comes with a list of 14 different documents to show identity and proof of income. The income limits are different in each municipality and benefits are given on a sliding scale in some towns and not others.

The savings can amount to more than $1,000 for modestly-sized homes in a state with some of the highest school property taxes in the nation. About 160,000 people have the exemption, according to the state tax department.

The woman in Clay and others are rushing to beat a March 1 deadline to qualify for a property tax discount meant for people who make less than about $37,400 a year.

The 10 people in line behind her Wednesday tried to navigate the space between sympathetic gazes and turned faces to give her privacy. Each person who walked up to the counter started with a phrase like “I don’t know if I have the right paperwork.”

Enhanced STAR is a state-run program for school tax breaks for people over age 65. Homeowners apply just once.

Enhanced STAR also requires just one document – a tax return. That program is run by the state tax department, which can verify changes in income each year on tax returns.

The senior exemption is handled by town assessors. They do not have that kind of information. Instead, to get a senior exemption, homeowners have to stand in line each year and prove to the assessor that their incomes are low enough to qualify. It applies to school taxes as well as county, city, town and village property taxes.

The difference between the two programs goes far into the weeds of New York’s complicated attempt to lower taxes without actually lowering taxes.

New York state counts only taxable income when it awards Enhanced STAR benefits. That program has higher income limits, - $92,000 this year. The cost is absorbed by the might of the entire state budget.

For the senior exemption, the state allows each municipality in Upstate New York to set a maximum income limit anywhere between $3,000 and $29,000 for a discount of 50 percent on property taxes. Municipalities also have the option to discount by lower percentages for people who make between $29,000 and $37,400.

The local senior exemption counts both taxable and non-taxable income toward benefits.

The intent is to make sure someone with sizeable tax-shielded investment income does not get the tax break by showing a small enough taxable income. The discount for seniors is absorbed by other town residents, so town officials have an extra incentive to make sure the help only goes to people who truly need it.

To make matters even more confusing this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed an executive order that allowed towns to decide whether they want to allow homeowners to skip this year’s application for the senior exemption and simply renew last year’s benefit to avoid visiting town halls during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a similar executive order in 2021, but did not give towns a choice.

There is no one place to find out which towns decided to waive renewal applications. The state does not keep track. The New York State Assessor’s Association does not know, according to Executive Director Warren Wheeler.

The only way to find out is to call the town assessor. In Onondaga County, for example, the Manlius Town Board passed a local law to waive this year’s application. Clay did not.

Clay Assessor Rob Bick said about two-thirds of people who qualify had already applied when Hochul issued the executive order in December.

Bick was one of just two staffers helping people in line Wednesday apply for senior exemptions as well as what he calls a “candy store” of other exemptions, all due by the end of business Tuesday.

New York also allows reduced assessments for veterans, people with disabilities, the owners of agricultural land and clergy. Each program has different applications and qualifications.

The town starts notifying people in October that they need to apply by March 1. They call seniors who have not applied by February. But every year, the lines start forming in the days leading up to the deadline.

“You would be surprised how many people do not know what exemption they have, do not know what their income is or where their income comes from,” he said. “So many seniors have no family in the area to help them, so we do what we can do to assist them in the process.”

Sometimes that means calling their children or financial advisors for clarification.

This week, there is no time for hand holding. Only three people work in the Clay assessor’s office, handling more than 19,000 residential parcels. About 1,600 of those have senior or disability exemptions, which have the same rigorous application, Bick said.

Bridgette Gallagher, a teacher from Saratoga Springs, drove to Clay this week during school break to help her 79-year-old mother go through her records. Her mother had been sent home twice for more information and she was frustrated.

Gallagher watched the clerk thumb through personal documents to prove that her mother does not make more than $37,400 a year. Her father has died. Her mother has just enough income to pay the electric bill, the phone bill and her car payment. Gallagher said she made a bit of a scene.

“These are our oldest citizens of this town,” she said. “This is a break that they deserve.”

The benefit qualifies Gallagher’s mother for a 50 percent reduction in the $133,500 assessment on her home. That means a savings of about $1,600 in school taxes, according to her tax bill. With the Enhanced STAR benefit added in, she pays just $14 in school taxes instead of about $3,300, records show.

In the end, Gallagher’s mother got the exemption. The stress of it also landed her in the doctor’s office, her daughter said.

The most obvious solution to this confusion, Wheeler said, is to get rid of the exemption. But no one advocates removing a tax break that could keep seniors in their own homes.

“They’re asking more and more of everybody involved, for the assessors to be more like forensic accountants,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is. The short answer is take it away, don’t even do it, and that’s not good.”

Another solution, Bick says, is for the state to handle any tax break that requires proof of income. That gets towns out of the business of running what amounts to a social services program, he said.

“New York has more property tax exemptions than any other state because the state refuses to fine tune the property tax process and instead continues to place Band-Aids on the process by adding exemptions and more recently, rebates,” Bick said. “You cannot keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.”

Here’s What You Need to Know:

New York has all kinds of programs that reduce the taxable value of property for people who live in their homes. There are two important programs for seniors. Here is what you need to know to get Enhanced STAR and a low-income senior exemption.

Low-income senior exemption:

Apply at the town assessor’s office every year by the end of business on March 1.

To qualify, you must be:

  • 65 years old
  • Own your home and have it be your primary residence.
  • Have a low income. The amounts vary in each county, town, village and school district, up to $37,400 in Upstate NY. Call the assessor’s office for information about income limits.

Apply every year.

Take these forms to town hall:

  • Federal income tax return for 2020.
  • Proof of residency (driver’s license or state-issued identification card)
  • Copy of trust agreement if property is owned by a trust.
  • Any of the following that apply, even if you bring your tax returns:
  • All 1099s for Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits
  • All 1099s for pensions and annuities
  • All 1099s for IRAs
  • All IRA year-end statements showing interest, dividends and realized capital gains as of 12/31/20.
  • W-2 for salary and wages
  • Net earnings from farming, rentals, business or professional
  • Income from estates or trusts
  • Gains from sales and exchanges
  • Proof of income from any other source, including unemployment insurance, veterans’ disability, workers’ compensation, alimony and gambling winnings.
  • Proof of unreimbursed medical expenses (these can be used to reduce your income in some towns)

Enhanced STAR:

To qualify, you must be:

  • 65 years old
  • Own your home and have it be your primary residence.
  • Have an income of $92,000 or less for the 2022-23 school year.

If you have Basic STAR and want to apply for an Enhanced STAR exemption, apply one time at your local assessor’s office by the end of business March 1.

If you are a new homeowner or do not already have basic STAR, you must register with the state tax department at The state is slowly moving all homeowners to its system, which operates as a credit on income taxes instead of a property tax exemption.

You will need to show copies of your state and federal tax returns for 2020.

The phone number for STAR questions at the state tax department is 518-457-2036.

What to do if you are denied:

If you were denied an exemption and believe you should be getting one, you can make a case to an independent body in your town at Grievance Day. Most towns hold Grievance Day hearings on the fourth Tuesday in May. Call the assessor’s office to find out the date.

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