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Suffolk County's accounting errors will delay tax bills, officials say

The H. Lee Dennison Building, headquarters of the

The H. Lee Dennison Building, headquarters of the Suffolk County government, in Hauppauge on Nov. 16, 2018. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Suffolk County residents can expect to receive their property tax bills later than usual this year after county accounting errors delayed the process, officials said.

Town tax receivers were able to start finalizing and sending out tax bills Monday — a few days later than usual — after the county legislature earlier in the day voted to fix the errors in set tax collection amounts.

The accounting errors were for two sewer district funds and the general fund tax levy.

The mistakes added more confusion and frustration to the tax process, Southampton Town Tax Receiver Theresa Kiernan said. Hundreds of residents had contacted her office before Monday, asking about the status of their tax bills. The sooner homeowners learn what they owe, the more time they have to come up with thousands of dollars in taxes, budget for the holidays and pay bills before vacations or family gatherings, receivers said.

“That’s the disappointing part, because the county legislature doesn’t talk to the taxpayers,” Kiernan said. “We take those phone calls.”

Town tax receivers formulate tax bills based on property taxes owed for all local jurisdictions, including counties and school districts, and towns then forward payments to the proper municipalities. Bills typically go out at the end of the first week of December.

Officials do not expect the delay to significantly affect homeowners, who still have until Jan. 10 to pay the first half of their property tax bill without penalty.

Some towns, including Islip and Southampton, had begun accepting tax payments through their websites Monday afternoon. Tax bills for other towns, including Smithtown, were not yet available, according to town websites.

The legislature approved the incorrect tax warrants, which authorize town tax receivers to collect a certain amount in taxes, on Dec. 3, and county officials did not realize there were mistakes until the next day.

Officials from County Executive Steve Bellone’s office blamed the errors on clerical mistakes and a rush to put the warrants together in time. Representatives said the legislature approved tax levies — the expected tax collection amount — earlier than they should have. Bellone, who signed off on those levies, later vetoed parts of the legislature’s budget, effectively changing the levies.

“The legislature should return to the normal practice next year, and we intend to introduce legislation to codify that into law to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Bellone spokesman Derek Poppe said.

But Jason Richberg, clerk to the legislature, disputed that there was any change in the process, saying, “There’s no real room to change” scheduling because of legal budget deadlines for the towns.

While the errors created a discrepancy of only $160,000 between the original tax warrants and the amended ones — a relatively small amount compared to the county’s overall $3.2-billion budget — they created bureaucratic headaches, officials said.

Several tax receivers had already sent now-incorrect tax bills to the printers, said Alexis Weik, the Islip Town receiver of taxes and president of the Suffolk County Receivers of Taxes Association. Then they had to wait nearly a week for final numbers to change the bills.

“Really it just delayed everything,” Shelter Island Town Tax Receiver Annmarie Seddio said.

Some towns are expected to seek reimbursement from the county for extra costs caused by the delay, including for overtime needs.

“It’s the end of the fiscal year,” Weik said. “Most of our offices don’t have extra [money] laying around.”

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