New York property owners getting rebate checks months early

ALBANY – When homeowners check their mail, there might be an unexpected payment from the state there.

New York has begun mailing out this year’s homeowner tax rebate checks, several months earlier than originally planned and just a few weeks before the first round of primary elections for the Assembly and statewide races — including the gubernatorial primaries — that are scheduled for June 28.

The timing has sparked controversy because the attachment on the check stub includes a short message that states: “Gov. Hochul and the New York State Legislature are providing you this.” That type of language has been controversial this year and in the past, when incumbent elected officials have also used rebate payments to claim credit for the distribution of taxpayers’ money during an election year.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Suozzi, one of the Democratic challengers facing off in the primary against Hochul, criticized the move on Friday, contending the governor is “bribing the voters before the election … (and) if it’s not illegal, it should be illegal,” according to the New York Post.

Hochul is running in the primary against Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

The checks are part of a one-year, $2.2 billion program included in the state budget in April. Hochul initially proposed a $1 billion property tax rebate to offset some of the financial pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and inflation.

The amount of each check will depend on factors such as where a property is located, a person’s income and whether a property owner receives Enhanced STAR or Basic STAR. The state has information on the state Department of Taxation and Finance website to help property owners determine their level of eligibility.

“This budget will put more money back into people’s pockets,” Hochul said in April after the budget was approved.

The checks were originally expected in the fall but the state moved to speed up the distribution, Hochul’s spokeswoman told the New York Post.

“Gov. Hochul worked with the Legislature to secure tax relief for New Yorkers in the state budget, and given rising costs and national inflation, the Department of Tax and Finance has been working to deliver these benefits to eligible homeowners as quickly as practicable and not delay relief at a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling,” Hazel Crampton-Hays said in an email.

Crampton-Hays did not respond to a request for clarification about whether the governor or her staff had requested or knew that Hochul’s name would appear on the checks.

Hochul’s office provided the same statement to the Times Union on Sunday.

While the message attached to the checks says, “you can use it to help pay your property taxes,” school taxes aren’t due until the fall, and other local taxes are typically due in January.

Sending rebate checks to potential voters just before an election, and adding an incumbent’s name on them, isn’t new. In 2018, the state sent out checks prior to then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s primary matchup with challenger Cynthia Nixon. Those checks did not include Cuomo’s name but did include a short letter similar to the one included in this round of rebate checks.

Cuomo’s name had appeared on a similar letter distributed days ahead of the 2014 general election.

Former President Donald Trump also put his name on stimulus checks prior to his 2020 re-election campaign.

And in 2006, then-Gov. George E. Pataki and the state Legislature pulled a similar move, sending election-year rebate checks along with a letter crediting lawmakers and the governor, according to the Democrat and Chronicle.

The property tax relief program is separate from the STAR rebate, which gives homeowners who earn less than $500,000 a year a break on their school taxes.

Elected officials have touted the rebate programs over the years as a tax break for middle-class taxpayers, but critics have pointed out that income thresholds are often much higher than the average taxpayers’ income.

The homeowner tax rebate credit in this year’s budget is a one-year program that will reach approximately 2.5 million homeowners.

In order to be eligible, residents must earn less than $250,000 and be eligible for the state’s school property tax rebate program.

Eligible city of Albany homeowners will receive between $110 and $1,002, depending on their 2020 income, according to the state Department of Taxation and Finance. Commercial property owners’ rebates will be slightly higher.

For lower-income homeowners, those earning below $75,000, the statewide average will be nearly $1,050, according to Spectrum News.

The state Department of Taxation and Finance said it expects to mail out most rebates in June. “If you don’t receive your check by early July, you can expect to receive it before your school tax bill is due,” the department says on its website.

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