Thousands in reductions went to ineligible properties
By Gwendolyn Craig
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is failing to monitor private forest owners receiving special tax breaks, many of whom are in the Adirondack Park, according to a new audit by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
The DEC agreed with most of the report, citing a lack of staff as one of the reasons for thousands of dollars in improper tax breaks. The department pointed out that local tax assessors were also not keeping track of the program. The department suggested legislation is needed to enhance its oversight.
A comptroller investigation of 135 properties showed from January 2017 to December 2019, 45 owners received more than $525,000 in tax breaks for which they did not qualify. The investigation included only a portion of the 6,858 properties enrolled in what is called the Real Property Tax Law 480a and 480. Under that law, private landowners with DEC-approved forest management plans for producing timber crops receive an annual property exemption of up to 80%. The 480a is the latest iteration of Law 480.
All participating landowners received a local tax reduction of $62 million between 2017 and 2019, according to the comptroller’s report. An interactive map the comptroller’s office created shows the majority of program participants are in the Adirondacks and North Country. The location of the 135 properties examined is unclear.
“New York state offers a property tax break for landowners who commit to protect their private forest land, but some property owners are not living up to their end of the agreement,” DiNapoli said. “This audit raises questions about whether these incentives are achieving their goal to improve private forest management. The tax benefits received are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and demand greater scrutiny.”
Two properties — one in Hamilton County, the other in Warren County — were cited in the interactive online report. In Hamilton County, a private forestland no longer in compliance with the program, was found to have a 6,000 square-foot house and a boat house that had been built in 1998. The 131-acre property receives a $1 million annual reduction in land value, good for $37,597 in tax breaks from 2017 to 2019, the comptroller’s office said. In Warren County, a 16-acre property, also not eligible but enrolled in the program, received a $94,393 tax break from 2017 to 2019.
The audit specifically found eight properties not committed to the tax exemption program, but still receiving exemptions. Another 25 properties were not eligible for the program, but still receiving exemptions. Some local assessors were also not able to provide the comptroller’s office with program documents.
“Department officials stated that several of the exceptions identified are an error on the assessor’s part and the Department has no authority to oversee their actions,” according to the audit. “Currently, the Department and assessor both possess information that could assist each other in overseeing the program but have limited communication with each other regarding the program.”
The DEC told the comptroller’s office it plans to contact the New York State Assessors Association to improve communication.
The DEC pointed to staffing shortages as a reason “the Department is generally not monitoring these aspects of the management plan.” The DEC has 29 foresters to oversee 1.5 million enrolled acres, according to the department’s response.
The DEC also does not keep track of the program in a centralized location. The comptroller’s office found each of DEC’s 23 sub regional offices track the information in different ways. The comptroller’s office recommended a centralized database.
“DEC has been actively developing solutions to mitigate these conditions and is pursuing regulatory changes to modernize the Program, which will reduce administrative burdens and improve forestry outcomes,” the department said.