In the late summer of 2011, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee turned more than half of New York State into a disaster area. In the wake of the storms, families were scattered, farms and businesses crippled, roads, bridges, schools massively damaged – entire regions laid to waste.
Six months later, many New Yorkers are still homeless and farms and businesses are still dark. Hundreds of communities across the state wonder whether they can ever fully recover.
Just before Christmas of last year, the legislature and governor authorized $50 million and a series of other measures intended to bring much-needed relief, gaining the support and thanks of those suffering from the massive impacts of the floods. These measures provided millions in direct grants to farms and businesses to help them rebuild, as well as monies for stabilizing the many streams and creeks that caused the massive damage during the storms.
Along with these and other measures, special authorization was given to schools and local governments to give families and individuals, whose homes were damaged by more than fifty percent from the floods, the ability to receive a direct rebate for property taxes paid in excess of the value of their homes.
To exercise the special authority granted them by the governor and legislature, schools and local governments in the declared disaster areas were required to opt into the Real Property Tax (RPT) Rebate Program by January 23rd of this year.
Sounds good, right?
“The problem is,” said Assemblyman Pete Lopez (R-C-I, Schoharie), whose sprawling seven- county district in the Mid-Hudson, Northern Catskills and Southern Tier was one of the hardest hit, “those communities that are suffering the most can’t afford to give back the money. This issue has pitted struggling homeowners desperately looking to rebuild against their own neighbors who are working largely as volunteers to keep local schools and government services running.”
“While the intent was good for those communities that were heaviest hit, what the governor and legislature did here is really inhumane – it’s nothing more than a cruel hoax giving the illusion of relief without providing state support,” added Assemblyman Lopez.
Assemblyman Lopez maintains that too many homeowners will not see the benefits, as a number of schools and local governments have come to the difficult decision that giving back the money in the middle of their fiscal year would put them at further financial risk. He further maintains that many who did opt in did so out of compassion for their neighbors, but don’t know how they will make ends meet as they struggle with paying for emergency measures and the continued cost of flood recovery.
“Local governments and schools in areas hit hardest by the floods are writing checks they just can’t pay for,” noted Assemblyman Lopez. “This will be followed by lost tax revenues resulting from the massive damage to properties, which will force drastic reductions in services and shift the tax burden to remaining homeowners and businesses, threatening their ability to make ends meet during the long, fragile recovery period.”
In response, Assemblyman Lopez has made an urgent, statewide plea for help. In a memo to his colleagues in the State Legislature, statewide interest groups representing farms, local governments and businesses, as well as school and local officials, he urges them to reach out to Governor Cuomo to reinforce the Assemblyman’s original request for the state to extend the deadlines and underwrite costs of the RPT Rebate Program.
A number of legislators, including Senators John Bonacic and James Seward, as well as Assembly Members Donna Lupardo, Jack McEneny and Cliff Crouch, already have come forward to help draw attention to the issue, some proposing legislation similar to the bill introduced by Assemblyman Lopez. Discussion among these legislators has centered on targeting aid to those most in need, as well as looking at other options for getting rebates into the hands of distressed property owners.
This attention is welcomed by Assemblyman Lopez, who notes that more help is urgently needed if the original goal of the RPT Rebate Program legislation is to be met.
“I am thankful for the efforts made by my colleagues thus far, but we need to draw more attention to this issue if we are to move forward,” said Assemblyman Lopez. “Governor Cuomo and his staff have proven themselves to be compassionate and reliable partners in helping our suffering communities. We need their help to make this happen.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here for copies of the Assemblyman’s memos to the legislature and local officials, his original letter to Governor Cuomo and a list of those Assembly Members and Senators representing the 34 counties declared disaster areas as a result of Lee and Irene, as well as a list of the statewide associations the Assemblyman included in his outreach.