The Westchester County Board of Legislators is scheduled to hold a public hearing at 7:30 tonight on legislation that has been drafted as a substitute for a proposal from County Executive George Latimer that would have allowed late payment of county property taxes without penalties or interest by people experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
County taxes are due by the end of April. Under Latimer’s proposal, they could have been paid without penalty or interest by qualified taxpayers as late as July 15, the revised due date for federal and state income taxes. Taxpayers would need to demonstrate financial hardship due to the outbreak and municipalities could opt out of the program.
The Board of Legislators version of the bill would give municipalities the authority to reduce the penalty for late payment to one-half percent for payments made from May 1 to May 31 from the existing 2 percent. The penalty for payments made June 1 through July 15 would be 1 percent instead of the current 5 percent. Taxpayers would not have to prove financial hardship due to COVID-19.
The public hearing on the legislation would remain open for written comments to be received until Friday at 5 p.m.
“If they pass the board plan it will come to my desk for signing,” Latimer told the Business Journal. “I can do one of three things: I can sign it into law, I can veto it or I can let it sit on my desk for 10 days and it will become law without my signature and thereby without my approval.”
Latimer said his plan was better because it lifted all penalties and interest for those who have been financially hurt by the pandemic.
“This is an unusual time. This is a time when people are in dire straits. You cannot hold them to the same standards that you do under normal circumstances,” Latimer said.
“The philosophy behind my plan which eliminates the late fees is a way to say to someone, ‘We understand you have a difficult time. We get that. We want to be understanding of that and we’re not going to charge you extra money because you’re at a time of great fiscal stress. We can’t avoid you paying the taxes but we can give you a little more time to stabilize yourself.’”
Latimer said that his proposal apparently ran into opposition from some towns that were afraid of losing revenues they normally get to keep from the late fees on county taxes.
“What I said to the towns when this first came up was, ‘We just shared with you a significant portion of sales tax. We showed that we were sympathetic to your needs for revenue. So now, this is the time for us as towns and county to put the needs of the taxpayer ahead of the needs of the government,’” Latimer said.
He was quick to note that the economic situation because of COVID-19 has put all municipal governments into a financial free fall.
“The sales tax revenue, the hotel tax revenue, the mortgage recording tax revenue, other revenues, fees, the money we make off of opening the County Center, the money we might make from the buses, all the money is gone. We have a free fall,” Latimer told the Business Journal. “What is the difference about another few bucks in a late fee? That’s not going to save your year, but it could help the taxpayers significantly.”
Latimer said they have already designed a form that can quickly be put to use by taxpayers who wanted to apply to take advantage of the breaks in his proposal.
“We designed our plan to focus on having an economic hardship. If you have an economic hardship then you should get this consideration,” Latimer said. “If you have the resources because you’re wealthy, we think you should pay on time and you should pay a late fee if you’re just holding back the money.”