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TRUST rebate program proves to be a source of contention for Sardinia general election candidates

SARDINIA — The winds of contention in the town of Sardinia are swirling, indeed.

As election season moves into high gear, letters to the editor have poured into the Journal, and questions have been raised as to whether the Tax Relief Under Sardinia Taxes Plan – also known as TRUST – was enacted as a way to garner votes, or that it is just good governance.

“It puts the tax money back into the taxpayers’ hands, where it belongs,” said Cheryl Earl, a town councilwoman who voted for the measure. “We’re all overtaxed in New York State. People know how to spend their money better than the government does.”

The feeling around town, at least according to Town Supervisor Mary Hannon, is positive. “Everyone that’s coming in here is extremely happy [about the TRUST program]. It’s a program that’s putting money back into the people’s hands,” said Hannon.

Regardless of public sentiment, Hannon said the town has received “huge amounts” of applications – about 700 so far and, she estimated, about 75 percent of the total eligible. “We’re hitting pretty close to everybody that’s out there,” said Hannon.

The supervisor explained the program “gives everyone who pays school taxes in the town of Sardinia [and] owns a piece of land a chance to get tax relief on one parcel of land. If they own more, they can get only get up to one parcel of relief, and it would give them up to $1,500. So, if they paid $500 on their school taxes, they will get a check for $500. If they paid $5,000 on their school taxes, they’ll get a check for $1,500.”

That money comes from a $2.5 million reserve the town has accrued from taxes, and from tipping fees paid by Waste Management for a landfill hosted by the town. Hannon also attributed the surplus to conservative spending by town government.

“I’m going to give credit to the board that we have now, and to past boards – we’ve been extremely conservative with our spending,” said Hannon. “We haven’t built new buildings or looked for different expenses that were out of reach for the town. We have a small town and mostly rural areas, and we’ve been able to maintain and accept what we have.”

Carla Fuller, who is running for town council this November, pointed out that some of those buildings are now in need of repairs.

“We’ve tried several different times to get a grant to get [the town’s pool house] renovated, and it’s deteriorated quite a bit. It was built in 1958, so we felt that monies could have been put toward that renovation. The roof on the highway bond has been replaced and this year, again, we had a septic system problem in the town hall, and [Dan Miller, Dale Hediger and I] put forth the question, what if this happens next year?” said Fuller.

The plan for the TRUST fund seeks to reduce the town’s reserves by $2 million in direct rebates, which would leave $500,000 in its coffers. Fuller said she worried that a spate of repairs would quickly diminish even that amount.

“You’re only going to have approximately $500,000 left; we’d have to bond out any other projects. Now, we could pay for that. Basically, [the town would be a] cash–paying customer ... We’re just concerned that we could be going from the most financially stable town in the area to one that possibly could be in financial jeopardy.”

Dan Miller is on the ticket this November with Fuller and Dale Hediger. Miller currently serves as a councilman, and was the only member to vote against the TRUST program, which passed 4–1. Miller speculated that the measure was introduced as a way to garner votes for his opponents in the election. “We’ve got different opinions, and I think [the TRUST program] was just rushed through, as a way to buy votes” for his opponents: Beverley Gambino, Leonard Hochnadel and Earl.

Hannon disagreed with Miller’s contention, and pointed out that she is not running for re–election. The program, she explained, was conceived of some years ago.

“We looked at [a rebate program] for the last four years. In fact, I had sent a letter out four years ago when I ran for office as a councilman, and as a supervisor, the year after that. I wanted to see that the money get back into the people’s hands. Less government, more personal choice, and that’s really what I believe in,” said Hannon.

For her part, Fuller said the TRUST program might be a good idea, but she would have liked to see more discussion about it.

“If they would have said, ‘you’re right, we’re going to slow this down, we’re going to do this project [after elections] in November, there would be no political strings attached to this, I think I would have gone right along with it. Because it seems to me, if you do have the extra [money], if you’ve checked it all out, it’s legal ... if all your ducks are in a row, I think it’s a great idea.”

Even Miller has applied for a rebate under the program.

“I’ve applied for it, because it’s town law and I pay taxes,” said Miller. The candidate said he is aware that, politically, at least, applying for a TRUST rebate might not be his most advantageous move. “[My opponents] are using that as campaign fodder, that I voted against it and I’m going to collect it.”

Miller explained that he and his running mates are in favor of a tax rebate, but they would have taken a different approach.

“We proposed a flat fee – we didn’t say a dollar amount – right across the board to every resident, and I think that would have benefitted everyone more than basing it on the school tax.”

The current plan only applies to businesses and individuals who own land in the town, and who paid school taxes in the last year. That group does not include those whose taxes were refunded, Fuller pointed out, by the New York State School Tax Relief program.

Fuller gave an example of a senior who has “lived in town 50 years, she’s not going to get a dime, and maybe she isn’t paying much in school taxes now, but for 50 years, she accumulated quite a nice little total of school taxes.”

In an open letter sent to Sardinia residents with TRUST application materials, Town Attorney Linda Joseph explained that a program giving refunds to some residents – to the exclusion of certain businesses – was explored, but ultimately dropped.

Joseph’s letter explained that the town board “considered options” that would have excluded some businesses, “but unfortunately concluded that we could not adopt such an approach without violating the law” with regard to gifting, and that such a program “would have made it impossible to assist the farming families in our community.”

Hannon said the council had discussed town–wide tax refunds, regardless of land ownership, “in the beginning stages of all this. It’s actually illegal to do, because that’s called ‘gifting.’ You have to have a reason and a purpose behind everything ... you have to look at everybody’s income, and that would mean proof of their taxes, and having that all in the town hall’s possession; I didn’t feel that that was the way to go. And, certainly, going after tax relief for those who pay school taxes in the town made sense to me. And to the rest of the board, it did.”

Earl cited concerns about loopholes an across–the–board refund might create. “What’s to stop someone from moving into town for two months, just to collect the money?” she said.

As it stands, residents have until Nov. 15 to apply for the program, less than two weeks after local elections.

Fuller said she was “bewildered” by the swiftness with which the program was passed. Regardless of any disagreements she may have with the TRUST program or its passage, Fuller said she hopes for a clean campaign going forward.

“I wish that politics in general would become less of a mudslinging contest,” she said, “and more of an opportunity for people to express an opinion.”

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