St. Lawrence County legislators continue debate over COVID-related property tax penalty relief
BY ANDY GARDNER
North Country This Week
St. Lawrence County legislators continued their debate of how to handle relief of penalties for late property tax payments during the coronavirus pandemic.
The discussion took place during their Finance Committee’s June 29 meeting held online via Zoom and streamed live on YouTube.County Attorney Steve Button said the board has several options. That includes legal authority they’ve always had to forgive penalties, an executive order that allows them to not charge penalties on taxes paid by April 22, and a bill that extends the period for filing additional abatements/exemptions from April 28 to June 15.
Button said a separate bill, awaiting the governor’s signature, would provide “that a local government upon the passage of a local law … may extend the time period why which [penalties] may be paid to that local government” and extended so no penalties would accrue.
County Treasurer Renee Cole said her statistics indicate similar tax payments have been received, in comparison to 2019.
“Our 2019 returns, our dollar amounts compare and the number of parcels compare to the prior year,” Cole said. “I don’t know that you can point a finger that any of the delinquents are attributable to COVID.”
She also said the state association of municipal treasurers came out against the two legislative bills that Button mentioned, one of which is now law and one that is awaiting an executive signature.
Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Acres, R-Madrid, said he thinks the county would be fine to proceed as they normally do.
“I would think that the number of delinquencies being equal or similar to last year, we should be fine. I think it would create a nightmare for the Treasurer’s Office,” Acres said. “I think that the state treasurer’s association didn’t want this to happen speaks volumes.”
He said he thinks the most adversely impacted would be landlords who own multiple rental properties who may have tenants who aren’t able to afford their rent.
Legislator Tony Arquiett, D-Helena, said he believes a minority of people in St. Lawrence County are funding the county government, and they deserve help.
“The last number I heard was somewhere around 30% (percentage of St. Lawrence County residents who own property). As I spoke at the last meeting, we’ve got 30% of people contributing property tax that are creating services to a whole bunch of people that aren’t,” he said. “There may need to be a local law driven to provide relief … I believe and continue to believe the pandemic is not the fault of our property owners.”
“They’ve been supporting a lot of people who don’t own property for a long time,” Arquiett said.
Legislator Larry Denesha, R-DeKalb, said he thinks the county should be open to assisting those who aren’t able to pay due to pandemic-related hardships.
“I’m not looking at giving people additional time to pay their taxes. What I’m looking at is not charging interest, not charging penalties,” Denesha said. “We have some taxpayers that are habitually late. They game the system … meanwhile the other taxpayers have been subsidizing them.”
“For a documented hardship, I really and truly believe if we can give some relief to someone who needs it … we should do it,” he said.
“This board always retains the ability to forgive interest, penalties and fees,” Button said. “I believe this board could take those cases on a case-by-case basis and address it, if it did not wish to develop an overall policy.”
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