Guilderland residents prepay over $4.6M in 2018 taxes

Lynne Buchanan

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
After finishing work at about 7:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Guilderland’s receiver of taxes, Lynne Buchanan, stopped in to the town board room, where the 2018 reorganizational meeting had just ended. 

GUILDERLAND — About 1,400 people came to the town hall in the last four days of 2017 to prepay their tax bills, with over 600 of those payments made on Friday, Dec. 29, said Lynne Buchanan, the town’s receiver of taxes.

The town received another 150 to 180 payments online, for a total amount of almost $4.6 million in early payments, she said, noting that this does not include another 500 or so payments received in the mail but, as of Tuesday afternoon, not yet opened.

This amount is 13 percent of the 2018 total, she said.

On Dec. 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order, temporarily amending state law, allowing New Yorkers to prepay their 2018 property-tax bills, to sidestep what he said was double taxation by the federal government, since the new GOP tax bill limits the ability to deduct state and local taxes from federal taxes.

At Guilderland Town Hall, it wasn’t just people who live in the town’s larger homes who prepaid, as she had expected, Buchanan said; it was “everybody.” Once the word got out, she said, “Everybody did it; I guess they’re presuming they’re going to save a little. Why not?”

There’s certainly no harm in prepaying, other than that people lose access to their funds for a limited period of time, said Thomas Collura, partner at Hodgson Russ in Albany and tax professor at the University at Albany.

According to Collura, those who will benefit from prepaying are those who meet three criteria:

— They itemize their deductions;

— They pay combined school and property taxes greater than $10,000; and

— They are not fully subject to the alternate minimum tax, or AMT.

The AMT, Collura said, is a separate calculation of tax that limits certain deductions for high earners and taxes income at a maximum 28-percent rate.

Collura noted that the new tax law contains a provision that prevents prepayment of income tax.

The Internal Revenue Service, “which also interprets the law,” he said, recently advised that a tax must be assessed before it can be prepaid. This prevents people from going to town hall and prepaying, for instance, 10 years’ worth of taxes, said Collura.

The amount collected in prepayment is “not a big windfall for the town,” said Guilderland’s fiscal officer, John O’Mara, noting that the town received the money “maybe a week or 10 days, 15 days earlier” than it would have otherwise. “The money’s not held for a long time,” he said.

By 9:05 Friday morning, Buchanan said, the line had snaked around the second-floor lobby and down the staircase, then looped around the first-floor lobby.

The wait was longest — at about 30 minutes — for residents who visited town hall that morning, Buchanan said, as staff worked to reduce the line. Buchanan was out in the lobby, she said, taking down mailing addresses so that tax bills could be printed out by the time people got to the window; employees from other town-hall offices pitched in to help, answering phones, taking payments, and printing bills.

Once the line was under control, she said, employees managed to keep up with the flow.

The window stayed open until 6 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday, Buchanan said.

The money is already in the bank, said Buchanan, noting that it is in accounts that do not earn interest.

On Tuesday, Jan. 2, the office took in another 25 or 30 payments, she said.

The office also fielded a large number of telephone calls on Tuesday from people who had prepaid but then also received tax bills in the mail. Buchanan reassured them that the reason they had received bills was because, “We couldn’t stop the mail.” People who are concerned, she said, should go to the website taxlookup.net to see that the payment they made has been applied.

At the town's organizational meeting Tuesday night, Supervisor Peter Barber thanked Buchanan for responding quickly to Cuomo's executive order and taking it upon herself to work throughout the Christmas holiday to make it possible to give residents their tax bills as early as Tuesday.

Over the holiday, he said, Buchanan worked with the town's vendor to get tax bills prepared and also arranged for payments online and by mail. She also worked with the county to have the tax warrant ready on Tuesday so that she could start accepting prepayment.

Barber also thanked Buchanan's deputy, Amanda Beedle, along with Heather Wienhold and Melissa Wood in the assessor’s office, for their professionalism and efficiency in answering phone calls and emails and for working extended hours on Thursday and Friday evenings.

Barber said he believed that Guilderland was one of the first municipalities in the state to start accepting early prepayment. Most towns that allowed prepayment, he said, did not start until Thursday or Friday.

Town board member Paul Pastore added that he heard from several residents that they had arrived at town hall laden with unfinished work and unread books to occupy them while they waited and were surprised at how fast the line moved.

Change in equalization rate causes county tax hike

The county portion of taxes on Guilderland property increased in 2018 because of the new state-set equalization rate.

“The equalization rate in the town of Guilderland decreased from 88% in 2016 to 76% in 2017, which means a shift in the tax burden to the town of Guilderland and its homeowners,” Sean Thelen, the county’s commissioner of management and budget, told The Enterprise through spokeswoman Mary Rozak.

“The County has no control over this,” Thelen said in an email, adding that County Executive Daniel McCoy indicated in his budget message that, if equalization rates set by the state remained the same, homeowners would not be seeing an increase in their county tax this year.

Guilderland’s assessor, Karen Van Wagenen told The Enterprise for an earlier story, in September, that Guilderland residents would be “responsible for a larger percentage of Albany County taxes.”

The state’s equalization rate is meant to equalize taxes among municipalities.

For example, with county taxes, if someone owns a house worth $100,000 in the city of Albany, that person pays the same amount of Albany County taxes as a person who owns a $100,000 house in Guilderland.

Albany recently completed a city-wide revaluation, so $100,000 is both the assessed and the full-market value for that home in the city. In Guilderland, that house with a full-market value of $100,000 had an assessed value of $88,000 in 2016 and an assessed value in 2017 of $75,580.

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