An election-year plan by state political leaders to mail tax-rebate checks to homeowners could provide thousands of dollars to some Long Islanders with high property values, along with hundreds of dollars to owners of less expensive residences, state and local experts said.
State tax officials estimate the plan could produce $1,179 in payments over three years for an average Nassau County homeowner and $875 in payments over that period for an average Suffolk homeowner.
Some education groups say a disproportionate share of $375 million in state money allotted for the rebates, to be sent out in October, will go to Long Island and other downstate suburbs where property taxes are highest.
The rebates are part of a broader "tax freeze" program pushed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has asserted the initiative will encourage school districts and local governments to streamline services, cut costs and keep within tax caps.
The Alliance for Quality Education, a coalition school group based in Albany, estimated in February that rebates to homeowners in downstate counties would average more than three times the size of rebates upstate.
"The wealthiest homeowners will receive the largest checks in the mail," said Billy Easton, the alliance's executive director.
Higher taxes, higher rebate
Geoffrey Gloak, a spokesman for the state Department of Taxation and Finance, said last week that rebate checks, whatever their size, would be proportional to total school taxes paid.
State officials have not estimated the value of initial checks except to say the payments should cover virtually any hikes in school taxes. Officials from some Long Island districts, at recent public meetings, have projected the value of the average rebate at less than $100 per household.
But Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business in the Roslyn school district, said the formula could result in big rebates for luxury homes hit by Nassau County's shifting assessment system. Drawing on recent examples from houses in his own district, Dragone said a homeowner paying $40,000 in school taxes and billed for an 8 percent increase driven by county reassessment could qualify for a $3,200 rebate.
"It's a lot of money that New York State is going to pass out," Dragone said.
Details of the tax rebates, known as credits, emerged recently as state officials held an online briefing for school administrators and others across the state.
Gloak said the briefing was meant to impress upon school leaders the importance of adhering to state-imposed caps on increases in property taxes. Homeowners will not be eligible for rebates in school districts that bust tax-levy limits.
"Long Islanders could save hundreds of dollars off their tax bills this year, as the program literally freezes their tax bills at last year's level," Gloak said in an interview. "It's important that school districts realize the enhanced significance of complying with the tax cap this year."
On the Island, four districts -- Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Sayville and West Babylon -- have decided to attempt cap overrides during budget voting on May 20. Overrides require approval by at least 60 percent of those who cast ballots.
Some administrators in those districts acknowledged that the promise of rebate checks will make overrides a more difficult concept to sell.
"That is going to be a huge decision-maker," said Jennifer Buscemi, executive director for finance and operations in West Babylon.
Legislators approved the $1.5 billion, three-year rebate package as part of the state's annual budget last month.
October's tax credit will cover school taxes only. To qualify, homeowners must earn no more than $500,000 annually, be eligible for the state's existing STAR tax exemptions and live in districts that stick with caps.
A second credit planned for October 2015 would cover taxes for other local governments as well as schools, but only if those government entities detail cost-cutting plans that reduce the tax levy at least 1 percent for each of the following three years. That plan would have to be approved by Cuomo's budget director.
State tax officials said this year's rebates will be calculated in one of two ways, depending on which provides the biggest benefit: (1) increases in school taxes between 2013 and 2014, excluding certain hikes such as those due to remodeling or expansions; (2) 2013 school taxes multiplied by an inflation factor of 1.46 percent.
Call to reduce other costs
Many school leaders contend the state is virtually forcing them to comply with caps, even if that means laying off teachers and cutting sports teams and other programs, such as drama productions and clubs. Those representatives said Albany should devote more time toward reducing costs of expensive state mandates, such as those covering pensions of school workers.
"Our feeling is that this [the rebate plan] is an election-year ploy that does nothing to address the underlying cost drivers that contribute to increases in school property taxes," said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials.