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State: Errors cost Huntington in uncollected property taxes

Officials say corrective action is being taken after

Officials say corrective action is being taken after an audit is critical of practices at the Huntington Town Assessor's Office Credit: Barry Sloan

The Huntington Town Board is taking corrective action to improve how its assessor’s office is run after a state audit found that some residents received tax exemptions that they were not eligible for. The audit also said errors potentially cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars in uncollected property taxes.

The state comptroller's report found the town did not properly administer and calculate real estate property tax exemptions for veterans and senior citizens. It also said the office did not maintain supporting documentation for granted exemptions and continued eligibility for some individuals who were exempt.

The audit covered the period from Dec. 1, 2017, to Nov. 30, 2018. The final report was released in September.

“Once we saw the draft report, the assessor, in consultation with the town attorney, began to develop a plan to address the findings of the draft report,” Town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci said. “By the time the final report came out several of the matters raised by the controller had already been resolved."

The town assessor is responsible for granting and tracking real property tax exemptions within the town’s boundaries, including county and school district exemptions.

The audit examined exemptions for some veterans, senior citizens and volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers.

The audit found problems with 71 of the 116, or 61%, of the exemptions reviewed. The 71 properties had their total taxable assessed value incorrectly adjusted by more than $1.7 million. The exceptions found in the audit also revealed systemic errors that could have incorrectly reduced taxable assessed value for thousands of other properties by $18.8 million.

The audit found that the assessor routinely overrides the equalization rate for all veterans exemptions so that, instead of the state equalization rate of 0.84, a rate of 0.90 is applied to veterans resulting in all veterans in the town incorrectly receiving higher exemptions.

For the 56 exemptions, or 1%, totaling $3.2 million that were reviewed, the effect of using an equalization rate of 0.90 instead of 0.84, is that 56 veterans incorrectly received $188,095 in county, town and school tax reductions for fiscal year 2018. This also means that the town’s 5,640 alternative veterans incorrectly received more than $18.8 million in exempted assessed value.

The town granted 1,525 senior citizens exemptions totaling $260.6 million in county, town and school exempted assessed value. The audit reviewed 30 of these exemptions, or 2%, totaling $6.45 million in assessed value and found that the town improperly used $29,000 as the income threshold for a 50% exemption for all properties in the town, regardless of what threshold each property’s school district actually adopted. As a result, 14 of the 30 properties the audit reviewed incorrectly received $1.28 million in county, town and school exempted assessed value for tax year 2018 and one of the 30 properties should have had its county, town and school assessed value reduced by an additional $33,333.

Lupinacci said the corrective action plan will help the new assessor to "begin her term with an office that offers streamlined, accurate and reliable service."

East Northport resident and real estate attorney Lisa Leonick was named town assessor last month for a six-year term beginning June 1. The assessor during the time of the audit was Roger Ramme, a Huntington attorney appointed to the position in 2013. He retired Sept. 16 and was appointed acting assessor by the town board on Sept. 17.

Some recommendations from the audit:

  • Ensure all applicants provide adequate supporting documentation before granting exemptions
  • Maintain eligibility documentation for all exemptions granted
  • Annually verify income to support senior citizens exemptions

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