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Early STAR checks went to Democratic counties

The state said it changed its distribution method to address complaints that the money came too slowly in the past.

View of the New York State Capitol from

View of the New York State Capitol from the Empire State Plaza on Sept. 4, 2016. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Debra Millet

ALBANY — STAR tax rebate checks to property owners were mailed far earlier than usual this year to New York City and eight counties in the state that traditionally have accounted for 74 percent of the Democratic vote in primary elections.

Election and tax records show the checks were sent in June, July and August to areas that included the five boroughs and Erie and Westchester counties. In Democratic primary elections such as the one held Sept. 13, those areas are traditionally the three highest sources of Democratic votes. There is not yet a breakdown of the Sept. 13 vote.

Until this year, the checks were sent in a “September to October” time frame and distribution took several weeks, according to the state tax department. This year, the checks to these top Democratic vote producers were mailed early enough so that the checks should have landed in homeowners’ hands well before the primary.

Staggering the dispersal of $1.3 billion in cash means that some taxpayers will get their property tax rebates months after others.

In the case of Suffolk County, which was carried by Republican Donald Trump, the checks are scheduled to be mailed in mid-December, according to the state tax records.

In Nassau County, which was Democratic enough to be won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, most checks are scheduled to be sent in early October. But it’s not uniform. For example, Glen Cove taxpayers, who faced school tax bills around Aug. 30, started receiving checks in early August, according to state tax records.

Most counties, primarily upstate ones with large Republican enrollments, weren’t scheduled to start receiving checks until early September or mid-October. Most cities in the state, which have more Democratic voters than suburban and rural areas, received them earlier because, the state said, city school tax bills are often included in city tax bills that operate on an earlier fiscal year.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi dismissed any connection between the rebate checks worth hundreds of dollars to most recipients and the Democratic primary as a “conspiracy theory.” He said the distribution was based on when school tax bills were due, noting that STAR stands for School Tax Relief.

He said changes in distribution were made this year because taxpayers had complained that the relief came too slowly and too late to be used when they were paying their school tax bills. Azzopardi said Cuomo’s name isn’t on the mailings.

“STAR was literally designed to help property taxpayers pay their school taxes and that is the schedule by which they are sent,” Azzopardi said. “Anyone spouting these silly conspiracy theories have clearly watched one too many episodes of the ‘X-Files.’ ”

But Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause-NY, a good-government group, said the timing was worth questioning. “It is very unusual that from the prior two terms the STAR tax rebate checks were not in any way responsive to when taxpayers had to pay their local tax bills, but magically this year there is a sudden realization,” she said. “Now, perhaps it is a coincidence. But it does look odd and I think it’s perfectly appropriate to ask how this happens during the primary season.”

The state estimated the date school property tax bills are due by adding 30 days to the date that tax levies have to be finalized by local governments. Using that measure, the municipalities — mostly cities — that received checks starting in the summer had earlier deadlines to pay school property taxes.

For example, in upstate’s Monroe County and Onondaga County, only the heavily Democratic cities — Rochester and Syracuse — received their checks beginning as early as mid-July. The rest of the counties, which include many towns controlled by Republicans, started receiving their checks in early September, according to state tax records.

James Gazzale, a spokesman for the Taxation and Finance Department, said checks were mailed as much as three months earlier than past years because the department has become more efficient in distributing the rebates.

He said that as of last Monday, the state had mailed out 215,000 STAR checks. More than 300,000 in total are scheduled to be mailed by the end of the year.

STAR checks had once gone to all qualified homeowners in the weeks before election days. That changed in part because good-government groups complained that incumbents of both parties were using money owed to voters to curry favor at the polls.

Now checks go to anyone who meets income qualifications and who has bought a home since 2014. Homeowners who live in the house they purchased before 2014 now get a tax credit in their state income taxes, part of a law to streamline the process.

Azzopardi confirmed that New York City and the eight counties identified by Newsday started receiving their checks this summer. A chart he provided showed the checks began to be mailed as early as June 30 in Westchester and July 1 in New York City, which were battlegrounds for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and activist Cynthia Nixon in the Democratic primary.

Cuomo won the primary with 65 percent of the vote statewide to Nixon’s 35 percent.

New York City Democrats traditionally account for 52 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Erie County, which traditionally provides the second most Democratic primary votes, with 9.6 percent of the statewide total, also started receiving its STAR checks by mid-July.

The third-biggest source of Democratic primary votes, Westchester County at 4.9 percent, started receiving STAR rebate checks in June.

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