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Volume 9 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 98

Opinions of Counsel index

Tax bills (enclosures) - Real Property Tax Law, § 922; Tax Law, § 1826; Westchester County Administrative Code, § 283.321:

In order to enclose printed material in a tax bill, there must be specific authorization in either State or local law. In Westchester County, the Westchester County Administrative Code authorizes certain enclosures. Propaganda or advertising may not be enclosed with tax bills.

A Westchester County town supervisor has proposed to include a two-sided enclosure with the town and county tax bill. One side of the enclosure would explain the budget. The other side, entitled “10 Examples How We Saved You Money,” is a letter to the town residents signed by the town supervisor recounting 10 “moneysavers” which the supervisor’s administration has purportedly instituted. We have been asked to explain the law applicable to these circumstances.

In 9 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 14, we concluded that a county, city, town or village needed to enact a local law to authorize the enclosure of a notice of change in the assessment calendar with property tax bills. That opinion, however, did not concern a Westchester County municipality. Since Westchester County municipalities operate under both State law and the Westchester County Charter and Administrative Code, further analysis is necessary. And, in fact, there are several statutes, in both the Real Property Tax Law (RPTL) and the Tax Law, as well as the Westchester County Tax Law, that bear on this subject. Our analysis is as follows:

Real Property Tax Law

Section 922 of the RPTL generally prescribes the form of the tax statement (e.g., the bill must show the amount due and the period covered by such taxes). Section 980 of the RPTL requires that tax bills (and tax receipts) must set forth the amount of local assistance which the municipal corporation estimates it will receive from the State. RPTL, section 467(4), requires that municipal corporations offering the partial tax exemption to senior citizens with limited incomes must include a statement on or with the tax bill advising of the availability of the exemption.

In addition, paragraph (d) of subdivision one of the aforementioned section 922 authorizes a city council or town board to adopt a resolution directing the tax collector to enclose with tax bills “a summary of the adopted municipal budget and an explanation of the computation of the tax rate.”

Westchester County law

Section 283.301(5) of the Westchester County Administrative Code [chapter 283 of the Code is known as the Westchester County Tax Law and will be cited herein as WCTL] provides that a town board may direct its tax receiver to mail tax bills to taxpayers. The form of the tax bill is not otherwise specified, but section 283.321 of the WCTL prescribes the receipt of taxes, {1} the form of which is to be prescribed by the town board. Additionally:

1. ***On the back of such receipt, there shall be printed a statement showing the total assessed valuation of real estate, the total assessed valuation of special franchises, the total assessed valuation of all property taxable within the towns or other tax district, the tax rate and the total taxes, together with a summary of the tax budget and the rate for each tax district, as well as the information required by § 980 of the Real Property Tax Law.

2. The town board may provide that such statement be printed separately, in which case the receiver of taxes shall mail with each receipt for taxes a printed copy of such statement.

To the extent that section 922(1)(d) of the RPTL and section 283.321 of the WCTL conflict, the WCTL provision controls (RPTL, § 2006). {2}  Here, however, the “conflict” appears limited to the fact that the RPTL authorizes a town board to publish budget information, while the WCTL mandates such publication. Aside from section 283.321, the WCTL’s provisions to not affect this issue.

Tax Law

Since most statutory provisions concerning the real property tax are naturally found in the RPTL, somewhat surprisingly, the Tax Law must also be examined. As we discussed in the aforementioned 9 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 14, subdivision (a) of section 1826 of the Tax Law makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to include with a tax bill “any notice, circular, pamphlet, card, hand-bill, printed or written notice of any kind other than that which is authorized or required by law. . . .” {3}  Clearly, the budget information which the WCTL requires to be sent with tax bills in Westchester County (and which may be sent elsewhere pursuant to RPTL, § 922(1)(d) is the type of notice which is not in conflict with section 1826 of the Tax Law. Therefore, the side of the subject notice which relates budget and tax computation information is a valid inclusion with the tax bill.

The other side of the subject notice presents a problem. No State law authorizes its enclosure, nor does the WCTL. A local law may authorize certain tax bill enclosures (9 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 14; 1959, Op.Atty.Gen. 13; 19 Op.State Compt. 207 (1963), 23 Op.State Compt. 298 (1967)). {4}  To our knowledge, the town in question has not yet adopted a local law to authorize any enclosure with the tax bill. In our opinion, however, section 1826 does not authorize the adoption of a local law to permit political propaganda to be sent with the tax bill. As we noted in 2 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 90, the section heading of what was then section 5 [and is now 1826] of the Tax Law refers to “advertising and propaganda material” and the heading of a statutory section is useful in determining legislative intent (McKinney’s Statutes, § 123; see also, 14 Op.State Compt. 389). In 18 Op.State Compt. 418, the State Comptroller concluded that a town supervisor could not include a “fiscal report” with the tax bill even when the supervisor was willing to pay the costs of publishing the report. In an article in the “Town Clerk’s Topics” (Volume 44, Number 5, May, 1985), published by the Association of Towns, discussing then section 5 of the Tax Law, Patrick Barnett-Mulligan, Esq., Assistant Attorney General, wrote:

Materials which are not reasonably related to a governmental purpose would not be appropriate subject matter for a local law, nor would they be an appropriate tax bill enclosure. Private materials, commercial advertisements and political or election materials could not be the subject of a local law or a tax bill enclosure, regardless of any reimbursement by the person seeking enclosure.

We concur with Mr. Barnett-Mulligan’s conclusion.

Clearly then, government related material may be enclosed with tax bills if such enclosure is authorized in State or local law. Indeed, in Westchester County, certain specific assessment and tax related information must appear on or be enclosed with the tax bill. However, in our opinion, State law prohibits the enclosure of material which is propaganda or advertising, and such an enclosure cannot be authorized by local law. Whether a particular enclosure is in fact propaganda or advertising depends upon an examination of that material.

March 26, 1993

{1}  Since it is common practice in Westchester County and elsewhere for a tax receipt to be a copy of the tax bill stamped as paid, we will assume that this section applies to the tax bill as well as the receipt.

{2}  Note that section 283.321 refers to section 980 of the RPTL. That section of the RPTL supersedes other inconsistent laws, as do other specific provisions of the RPTL (e.g., § 559).

{3}  Subdivision (b) of section 1826 provides an exception to subdivision (a): the governing board of a political subdivision may unanimously resolve to include with the tax bill “a particular written or printed notice relating to water rates, sewer rentals, permit fees and other fees and charges payable to the political subdivision. . . .”

{4}  For example, in our cited opinion, we concluded that notice of a revised assessment calendar could be sent with the tax bill. In his 1967 opinion, the Comptroller concluded that a village information bulletin could be sent when authorized by local law.