WOONSOCKET — Thanks to an internal streamlining of the oversight process by the tax assessor, more than 5,000 beneficiaries of the homestead exemption may be able to reduce their budgets for Excedrin this year.
The City Council is moving to repeal a measure that compels individual beneficiaries to reapply for the exemption every three years, providing a plethora of documentation, including proof of residency, an affidavit of residency, and motor vehicle registrations. Final passage of the measure is scheduled for Feb. 18; otherwise beneficiaries would have been required to reapply for the exemption no later than March 15.
The legislation to be phased out was passed by the council in 2015 amid concerns that the city’s most generous tax break – meant only for owner-occupants of city property – was being abused. Although the homestead exemption had been on the books for many years, it had never been audited until shortly before the council passed the measure – a review that resulted in several hundred property owners getting booted off the program because officials concluded they were residing somewhere other than the address upon which the benefit had been claimed.
The legislation was conceived as a tool to maintain the integrity of the program going forward through regular, ongoing reapplication requirements, but the council is now moving to strike it from the books because Tax Assessor Elyse Pare has found an easier way to verify whether recipients of the perk meet the residency requirement. The council preliminarily passed the repeal on Feb. 4, but final passage is expected at the panel’s next regular meeting.
Basically, Pare says, she has initiated a process of cross-referencing the addresses on motor vehicles registered in the city with recipients of the homestead exemption. If motor vehicles owned by beneficiaries turn up with a different address than the property attached to the exemption, those residents will be asked to reapply for the exemption.
While the process is ongoing, Pare said it has so far resulted in reapplication requirement letters to 367 property owners who are receiving the homestead exemption.
The process is far more efficient and time-saving than requiring all of the city’s homestead beneficiaries to reapply. Many of those individuals would have come to City Hall in person, and it’s not unusual to encounter some who simply take it for granted that the city should know where they live based on documentation available in public records.
The most oft-heard complaints revolve around the availability of motor vehicle records, she says.
“If I know for a fact that someone has their car registered here, why burden them with a new application?” says Pare. “People were frustrated.”
While the new system is less labor intensive than recertifying the whole catalog of exemption applications – it wasn’t necessarily easy to set up, the tax assessor said. There was no simple way of executing a digital crosscheck of motor vehicle and homestead exemption records.
“I basically had to build a new database,” said Pare.
Established decades ago, the homestead exemption is one of the most generous property tax breaks in the state, especially for the owners of single-family homes – the single largest group of beneficiaries. There are 5,240 total beneficiaries of the homestead exemption on the tax rolls, but the latter group accounts for 4,158 property owners who receive the most money-saving version of the break – 25 percent off the taxable value of their residences. On a home assessed at $150,000 – the exemption yields a savings of $903 a year in annual property taxes.
An additional 812 beneficiaries are the owners of two-family homes who receive 10 percent off their assessment, and the balance consists of 279 owners of three-family homes who get a break of 5 percent. The owners of dwellings with four or more units receive no exemption.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo