Seniors who forgot to verify income find Enhanced STAR suspended

LITTLE VALLEY — More than 500 senior citizens in Cattaraugus County have received letters from the state Department of Taxation and Finance seeking to verify their income for enhanced STAR eligibility.

This is the first year since the state took over the STAR (State Tax Relief program) and Enhanced STAR, and the state sought to verify the income of people getting STAR and Enhanced STAR benefits.

Some people either didn’t return the income verification form to their local assessor or the assessor failed to communicate with the state tax office, according to Daniel Martonis, director of Real Property Tax Services.

As a result, the county has received 519 letters from the State Department of Taxation and Finance to reduce individuals’ Enhanced STAR designation to a STAR exemption.

That can mean some senior citizens will receive a school tax bill in September for up to twice what they paid last year, Martonis said.

The greatest number of people affected by the STAR income verification are from the Olean area, Martonis said. He added Olean City Assessor Gregg Piechota had done a great job assisting residents who forgot to respond to the state’s request for income verification.

“If a resident gets a letter from the state, fill it out immediately and get them the information they are requesting,” Martonis advised. “If they don’t, then they miss out on a good amount of school tax savings.”

Martonis advised county lawmakers of the issue after property owners inundated the county tax office with questions about receiving a STAR letter from the state saying they were in danger of losing their exemption. There were “at least 519 instances in which the state has mandated us to remove or lower someone’s STAR.”

“The reason this is occurring is because the state is now taking over the STAR program,” Martonis said. “We have no control over this, it is now a state run program.”

Martonis said his office is advising people who call or email, “letting them know what is going on, but ultimately they may have to talk to the state.”

If the state did not receive income verification, the state will send them a letter asking for income verification to restore Enhanced STAR benefits, Martonis said. Once that information is received, the state will send the homeowner a check for the difference, he added.

Martonis advised people who meet the Enhanced STAR guidelines, but forgot to verify their income this year to pay their school taxes if they can afford it. The state will send a check for the difference, but he is not certain when that check will be sent.

“When the school bills go out in September, we will undoubtedly have more property owners coming forward,” Martonis wrote to county legislators. “If you get any calls about the STAR or why a property owner’s school bill increased greatly, please send them to my department. We can help them out.”

The STAR Program has been in effect for many years, Martonis said. Previously the income did not have to be verified by the state. That was done through local assessors. “Now it’s mandatory. If you want to get the Enhanced STAR you have to participate in the Income Verification Program.” It required assessors to enter the information online.

As of Oct. 1, there will be a 1% penalty added to the tax bill. Martonis advised seniors to “pay the bill and wait for the (STAR) check.”

Martonis admitted it can be confusing. “It will work out as long as people send in the income verification. It’s out of the assessors’ hands now, although they will try to help people. We have no say over it.”

The first year of the state takeover of the program hasn’t gone as smooth as everyone had hoped, Martonis said. “Get the data back to the state. They will let the local assessor know. If you get a letter from the state, get it right back to them.”

Published in The Olean Times Herald Aug. 14, 2019

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