Supervisor Warren Lucas led a conference call of town supervisors that led to a key change last week in a proposed county action to help Westchester property owners pummeled by the coronavirus economy. 

The measure, now before the county Board of Legislators and expected to get a public hearing next week, would substantially lessen the penalty for paying county property taxes after their April 30 due date.

The legislation does not, as originally proposed, postpone the date by which taxes must be paid to avoid a penalty. But it does sharply reduce the cost to taxpayers who are late.

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Amid dramatic plunges in retail revenue and stock prices, the coronavirus’s cascading economic impact has fostered record unemployment and created widespread pressure on the finances of households and small businesses alike. To help address those economic challenges, County Executive George Latimer initially proposed moving the deadline for paying county property taxes from April to July for residents asserting “economic hardship.”

Establishing such a hardship this close to the tax bill’s due date, was “not even possible,” Lucas said.

After his conference call with town supervisors, however, that plan was amended to simply reduce the penalty for being late.

 “It gives them a little flexibility without penalizing them too much,” Lucas said of the revised legislation. “That’s what we’re hoping.” With the scaled-back penalties, he estimated, an extra $10 to $15 would buy the average North Salem homeowner, if needed, as much as a month’s delay in meeting town/county tax obligations. 

Bedford Supervisor Chris Burdick, who was among the call’s participants, had opposed the original scheme when asked last week.

But on Sunday, April 5, after the call, Burdick said he now supported the revised legislation. 

Under the plan, county tax payments that were not made until May would be subject to a penalty of 0.5 percent, not 2 percent per the law in effect now. Payments made from June 1 to July 15 would be penalized 1 percent, not 5 percent as the law now provides.

County Legislator Kitley Covill, who chairs the county board’s Legislation Committee, said she was “glad that we’re able to work with the towns’ leadership to find a measure that helps taxpayers and gives towns flexibility.”

As originally envisioned by Latimer, the relief legislation would have postponed the due date for county property taxes until July 15. But, as Burdick noted last week in opposing the plan, each Westchester town must bill residents for its own property taxes as well as the county’s, collecting both by April 30. It’s then required to send 60 percent of the county’s tax money to White Plains before June 1 or face stiff penalties. Since the original tax-relief proposal, establishing the July due date, made no provision for lifting those penalties for late remittance, supervisors would be required to turn over to the county cash that had already been foreclosed to timely collection.

The key change to the Latimer plan emerged after the conference call hosted by Lucas, president of the county’s association of town supervisors, on Friday, April 3. That’s when the Board of Legislators changed the relief package, replacing the proposed July payment date with simply a reduced penalty for failing to make the April payment on time.

Covill, of District 2, which encompasses North Salem as well as Bedford, Lewisboro, Somers, Mount Kisco and Pound Ridge, said the tax-relief measure could be just a first step for the county in addressing the virus’s impact. 

“This may be the beginning of legislation we will consider in response to the coronavirus outbreak,” she said. “We will need to act swiftly, but also continue to provide essential oversight and work to make sure laws we pass can be helpful and lawful.”
Said Catherine Borgia, chair of the state Legislature’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, “The need to provide relief to taxpayers is urgent.”

But the former Ossining supervisor added, “It is also urgent that we work across all levels of government to find solutions that are cooperatively arrived at, capable of being implemented and fair. This solution, which represents the preference of our town supervisors, does just that.”

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