Brookhaven officials on Tuesday announced a crackdown on landowners who fraudulently claim property tax reductions under the state's STAR program.
Officials said at a Town Hall news conference they suspect hundreds of property owners may have lowered their school tax bills by improperly filing applications for the School Tax Relief Program for homes that are not their primary residences. They vowed to recoup losses from violators and refer repeat offenders to the Suffolk County district attorney's office.
Officials said they could not estimate how much tax revenue local school districts may have lost. A 2013 audit by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that the state may have lost as much as $13 million in the 2010-11 fiscal year due to improper STAR exemptions.
"If our school districts actually had this money . . . we would be in a very, very different budget situation than we are now," Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner said.
Supervisor Edward P. Romaine cited the owner of a vacant house in Shirley who has received STAR benefits. Town officials plan to demolish the home Thursday because it is unsafe for occupancy, he said.
"For five years, that house has been vacant, and for five years that person has applied for STAR," Romaine said.
Town Assessor James Ryan said violators face fines up to $2,500 and may have to repay up to six years' worth of STAR exemptions. They also would pay a $500 processing fee and lose the right to STAR exemptions for up to six years, he said.
Ryan said his office had forwarded 30 to 35 cases of suspected STAR fraud to the district attorney's office in recent years. Deputy town attorney David Moran said officials had helped 50 to 60 homeowners to comply with the STAR law.
Town officials blamed many of the incorrect STAR exemptions on owners of vacation and rental homes. Romaine said officials suspect landlords who own about a dozen rooming houses occupied by college students in Stony Brook and Setauket are also receiving the exemptions.
Kai Li, organizer of the Coalition of Landlords and Tenants of Stony Brook, said those property owners were being unfairly used as scapegoats. He said it would be difficult for landlords to obtain STAR exemptions for homes they don't reside in.
"The town tries to create these scenarios and dump this dirty water on the landlords," Li said in a telephone interview. "I don't know if they have the facts. If they have the facts, they should bring it out."