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County examining partial property tax exemption for low-income seniors

OBSERVER Photo by Jimmy McCarthy. County Executive Vince Horrigan (left) and Jim Caflisch, county real property tax director, discuss the idea of elevating the income threshold so senior citizens can get property tax exemptions on the homes in which they live.

MAYVILLE — Senior citizens on a low income face tough financial decisions.

Sometimes, it’s either paying for medications or letting it go in order to buy groceries.

To help seniors with financial constraints, Chautauqua County officials are looking at increasing eligibility for a partial real property tax exemption. The idea came to County Executive Vince Horrigan after a local resident approached him on the subject. Horrigan explained to the County Legislature’s Administrative Services Committee recently that there’s an income limitation to receive various exemptions such as STAR or enhanced STAR.

Local governments and school districts in New York can opt to grant a reduction on the amount of property taxes paid by qualifying senior citizens. This is accomplished by reducing the taxable assessment of the senior’s home as much as 50 percent. There are certain requirements that must be met to get the exemption.

The last time the income threshold increased locally was 2012. It was elevated to $20,000 at the time.

“My view is that at some point in the fall, we should bump it up a couple thousand bucks just to keep up with a reasonable rate of inflation,” Horrigan said.

“It’s about 700 citizens that receive this exemption out there,” he added.

Between $2 million and $3 million would be taken off the county’s assessed valuation, which totals $7 billion. Horrigan said if the threshold were raised to $22,000, it wouldn’t have any real impact on the tax levy.

While seniors with a low income would get an exemption, the tax shift would go to those who don’t receive it, Caflisch said.

“We wouldn’t lose any revenue,” he said.

Other counties in the region have various systems in place to give a property tax exemption to low-income seniors. Caflisch said the county should keep their exemption in line with other areas. He also said the county should go with a flat system instead of a sliding scale of various exemptions for different income levels.

“I prefer, and Kevin (Muldowney) would agree, it’s a lot easier to administer with a flat 50 percent,” Caflisch said. “You would be putting the assessor at the forefront of having to verify income. I think it’s better if you’re in or out.”

Muldowney, county legislator and Pomfret town assessor, said an increase is definitely warranted. Muldowney, R-Dunkirk, said people come into his office looking for the exemption and just miss it.

“This really does save (them) a lot of money,” he said.

Legislator Lisa Vanstrom, R-West Ellicott, said she’s talked with numerous seniors who are not getting the exemption when they previously had.

“Maybe they made a little too much money unknowingly one year,” she said. “These are valuable citizens. They worked their whole lives and now they’re missing out on an exemption that really helps them stay in their home.”

Chairman Bob Scudder, R-Fredonia, said he’d like to see the exemption eligibility go as high as they could possibly go. Horrigan said a proposal will come to legislators in the fall. Time will be given for more consideration while local municipalities would be advised and given an opportunity to voice their opinions.

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