Applications for group homes for disabled people appear to be on the rise in Smithtown, Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said at a hearing last week for a home proposed in Fort Salonga.
“There is an uptick,” he said at Wednesday's hearing for the Old Route 25A home, where seven young men with autism and developmental disabilities would live, cared for by staffers from Center for Developmental Disabilities, a Woodbury-based nonprofit.
There are roughly 40 group homes in the town, with nine homes proposed or opened since 2017, according to town officials.
Officials say they receive few complaints about the homes once they open, but are concerned about increased demand for emergency services and a decreased tax base, since homes operated by not-for-profits are exempt from nearly all property taxes.
The total value of those exemptions, estimated at $818,762, is less than those for veterans or seniors, Town Assessor Peter Johnson wrote in an email, and a fraction of the town’s $57 million tax levy for 2019. But, wrote Johnson, as with most exemptions, they “shrink the tax base for all local tax jurisdictions, and shift the tax burden to all other taxable properties within those jurisdictions.”
Representatives for a state oversight agency, the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, answered a list of questions with a statement that said, in part: “New residential opportunities for people with developmental disabilities are based upon need. OPWDD works hard to provide residential supports to people in the community in which they already reside or as close to it as possible, to ensure that they can maintain connections with family and friends.”
Mandy Breslow, a Long Island clinical social worker who has written about a “growing crisis” of housing for adults with autism, said families can wait a decade or longer for placement. “Where do these people live in the meantime? They live with aging parents or a sibling,” she said. “This shortage is marginalizing a whole segment of our population.”
When a group home is proposed in Smithtown, the town council requires a hearing with the not-for-profit officials and nearby residents, who are often worried about property values, traffic, or the possibility that their prospective neighbors’ disabilities could make them dangerous. Residents are sometimes surprised to learn that the hearing is mostly informational: Under state law, the council does not approve or reject the proposal and can only suggest an alternative site or object based on overconcentration.
“There has never been a successful challenge to the courts or to the state agency” based on those reasons, Town Attorney Matthew Jakubowski said at the hearing.
“I feel it’s your responsibility to defend us in our neighborhood … I don’t want this on my street, simple,” one man said to council members on Wednesday.
Pressed by a resident, Wehrheim said town officials would seek help from Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) and State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), repeating a commitment he made in an interview following another contentious hearing last April. “We’re putting our case together,” he said during the most recent hearing.
Fitzpatrick said in an interview that he welcomed a meeting, but that solutions involving tax revenue would involve the entire State Legislature and the governor. “The state is looking at a $6.1 billion deficit, so it’s not going to be an easy lift,” he said.
- Estimated total property taxes Smithtown group homes would pay without exemptions: $818,762.60
- Amount they owed with exemptions: $12,050.11
Estimates based on Smithtown residential tax bills as of January 2019