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Suffolk clears backlog of overdue residential property tax refunds

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone attended a press

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone attended a press conference in Greenport, on May 5, 2015. Credit: Randee Daddona

A backlog of more than 11,000 overdue residential property tax refunds in Suffolk County that have been delayed for up to a year has finally been cleared up, according to County Executive Steve Bellone and interim Treasurer Barry Paul.

The refunds, which can range from as little as $50 to $10,000 or more, had been languishing for several years, officials said. Homeowners can win a reduction of their annual property taxes if they successfully grieve their yearly tax assessment by suing for a reduction in court. The county treasurer then calculates the amount a homeowner is owed for the one year's property taxes.

Officials say delays were caused by staffing shortages when the county was undergoing severe fiscal challenges. Officials also cited the need to give priority to a flood of assessment reductions for more costly commercial properties, which can get refunds for up to five years' worth of past property taxes.

Under state law, the county must pay those due refunds 1 percent in interest monthly, if refunds are not paid within 90 days. By clearing up the backlog, interest penalties, which last year totaled $2 million, will be cut this year to about $1 million.

The interest cost does not impact the county budget, but it is a direct charge added to the annual county tax warrant, which splits refund costs among taxpayers in all 10 Suffolk towns.

Paul said the treasurer's office normally uses four full-time staffers and one seasonal intern to handle the labor-intensive task of calculating refunds. To clear up the backlog, three to four additional staffers, as well as other part-timers, were put to work processing overdue refunds.

Paul said part of the problem is that the 90 days to make refunds starts at the time of the court orders in the tax grievance cases. The decisions are sent to the towns, which then turn the information over to the county treasurer. "Sometimes we do not even know about the refund until 45 days later," Paul said.

Officials say they have made overtures to both court officials and towns to try to streamline notification so that the treasurer's office can begin work sooner. Paul said the county also is exploring the use of computerized tax histories on all parcels.

"Everyone was doing the best job they could with the staff they had," said Bellone, who expressed the hope that from now on "we can keep things on a timely basis."

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