Most homeowners opening their tax bills this season probably think the bill is too high. For Erie County homeowners, they may be right.
A budgeting error has caused thousands of residents to be overcharged a total of $4.4 million on their recent property tax bills. The nearly 200,000 incorrect bills were sent to the county's cities and larger suburbs like Amherst and Tonawanda. Impacted residents were overcharged $6.79 per $100,000 dollars of assessed value.
“It is an utterly unacceptable mistake,” Erie County Deputy Executive Maria Whyte told the county Legislature’s Finance and Management Committee Friday, explaining it will cost roughly $83,000 to print and mail refunds and new, corrected tax statements. “It’s a mistake that is $4.4 million spread out over hundreds of thousands of taxpayers, and it is costing us $83,000 to correct a $4.4 million problem.”
Legislators repeatedly called the mistake “embarrassing,” noting it was reminiscent of a similar county tax error in 2009 that undercharged homeowners. Some want to see discipline for county officials, too.
“I want to know the people that were in charge, the eyes that were supposed to be on this issue, are actually being handled in a way to understand that they caused a problem for us here in Erie County,” said Legislative Majority Leader April Baskin, D-Buffalo.
The incorrect tax bills, which impacted the county’s three cities and first-ring suburbs of more than 10,000 people, were discovered last week Friday, Jan. 25. County officials worked over the weekend to stop an additional 26,000 incorrect tax bills from being distributed to second-ring suburbs of fewer than 10,000 people.
Whyte said officials originally planned to mail corrected tax bills, but town clerks told them this would cause logistical problems.
Officials now ask that homeowners pay the incorrect tax bill by the Feb. 18 deadline. The county will then mail them refund checks, along with a corrected tax statement, in March.
“It is important for taxpayers to pay their bill on time,” Whyte said, noting the county’s 1942 tax act made it nearly impossible to extend the deadline. “At this point it is best for them to pay the bill they have already received.”
Whyte said the ordeal will cost an estimated $83,458, including $65,000 for additional mailing expenses, $4,300 for paper, $3,800 for envelopes, and $2,500 for overtime for county employees.
“It seems that the real winner here is the post office,” said Legislator Frank Todaro, adding, “It’s terrible. It’s embarrassing. ... We have to do a better job.”
Much of Friday’s committee meeting, including its most contentious moments, centered on how the error occurred in the first place.
Whyte and other officials said it was related to the county’s community college chargeback system. Erie County municipalities are taxed extra when their residents attend community colleges outside the county. For the last few years, the county has absorbed a portion of that cost for the municipalities.
However, that $4.4 million portion was never reduced off the tax levy this year.
Nancy Snyder, acting director of the county’s real property tax services, said former director Joseph Maciejewski knew to ask the county’s budgeting office to adjust the tax levy. Maciejewski resigned in June after making inappropriate remarks at a state function. He died Dec. 30.
“Unfortunately, that piece of knowledge left when he resigned,” Snyder told legislators.
It was the director of the budgeting office, Robert Keating, who ultimately took responsibility. Keating said although Snyder never asked him to adjust the levy, he should have known to do it anyway.
“I feel horrible about it,” Keating told legislators. “It’s very costly and I’m thoroughly embarrassed about it.”
However, Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, put the spotlight on Keating’s deputy budgeting director, Scott Bylewski. Bylewski was appointed to director of real property tax services earlier this month by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
Noting Bylewski is involved with both of the implicated offices, Lorigo directly questioned why Bylewski did not catch the error.
“That was not part of my duty as part of the budget office,” Bylewski told Lorigo. “There are different people within the budget office who had different responsibilities.”
Speaking after the meeting, Lorigo accused the county administration of trying to shield Bylewski from responsibility in the ordeal.
“It’s politics as usual for the Democrats in county government. They’ll do anything they possibly can to protect the county executive, anything they possibly can to protect anybody from being embarrassed,” said Lorigo, adding he plans to write a letter asking Poloncarz to cancel Bylewski’s appointment to director or real property tax services.
Whyte said there will be disciplinary measures taken, but she could not discuss them in an open session.
“I can assure you there will be consequences,” she told legislators.