Legal expert weighs in on Rotterdam sewer tax issues and possible solutions

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ROTTERDAM, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Rotterdam’s town board members are doing their best to calm angry residents who’ve received overinflated sewer tax bills. Unfortunately, Wednesday night’s meeting came with no answers yet.

“We don’t like it and we know you don’t like it, and I’m not going to sit up here and say that we can just wave a magic wand and you’ll no longer have this debt service, because no one‘s convinced us at this point in time that we can change the situation that we are in,” Deputy Supervisor Jack Dodson explained to the group attending the board meeting.

“Those people stuck it to us and they stuck it to you and you as the new board should stand by the people of Rotterdam and do what’s right,” one woman said during a public comment period, referencing the previous board’s decision to change the town’s tax structure.

As NEWS10 reported, Supervisor Mollie Collins and Deputy Supervisor Dodson confirmed in a Wednesday morning interview that back on December 8, the previous town administration had made several changes to the way taxes were billed and itemized. In doing so, the town also accidentally charged the entirety of a sewer improvement project debt payment to only the residents of Sewer District 2, Extension 1. Dodson confirmed to town residents at Wednesday night’s board meeting that the total of around $146,000 was meant to be split between all the residents of Sewer District 2.

Collins and Dodson had said Schenectady County tax authorities told them it’s impossible to change a tax once it’s been levied. Real estate tax legal expert Erika Browne says it may be less a function of impossible and more that it’s extremely difficult.

“The problem with the tax levy right now is that it’s been approved and what they’ve done is the budget’s been allocated amongst the members of the town. I don’t know how you could fix it in a way that would make it fair and equitable at this point,” Browne explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

She says you may get some of your taxes back later down the road, but you’d have to pay them first to avoid late penalties, something the town board also advises.

“You may have seen before a line that says ‘charge back’, which is when a municipality gives back money, but that would be a future adjustment in next year’s tax, not an immediate solution,” she says.

“If you’ve overpaid any taxes, you will receive a credit, but please don’t put yourself in a situation whereby not paying your taxes, the situation gets worse,” Dodson said during the meeting.

However, Browne adds when you pay your taxes, you can still object to the charges and prepare a legal case.

“What you want to do is make sure you retain your rights. You would usually write it right on your tax ‘paid under protest’, because if something is corrected, you can say, I objected to the tax,” she detailed. “Even if you paid the tax already though, you can still consult with a lawyer and challenge it later.”

She says residents can then file with the Schenectady County Supreme Court what’s called an “Article 78 proceeding” — challenging an authority’s decision.

“It’s challenging the constitutionality of it. Was it fair? Is it fair and equitable? Is everyone contributing the correct amount? Also, how did they come to that decision or was it done in error?” Browne explains.

She also says residents have time to make a claim specifically because the town admits it gave no notice. All taxpayers usually get four months to appeal any tax changes their municipality makes.

“The question is when does that clock start on the four-month window? It could be whenever this was passed in December or if the town had published it anywhere, but at this point, from what I’m hearing so far, it sounds like the first notice these residents got was the property tax bills they received,” Browne estimates. “You can join together, and that’s typically how someone would handle something like this, where you would have multiple plaintiffs and it would be members of the sewer extension and you can bring one action.”

NEWS10 has reached out to Schenectady County, which represents the Rotterdam area, to clarify if there are any corrections the town can make within the limits of the tax law. As of Thursday night, NEWS10 has not heard back.

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