The Hofstra University Presidential Debate, the Suburban Dream, & the Law

(Getty Images, Levittown, Long Island)

Long Island’s Hofstra University is the perfect place to host the first Presidential Debate of 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday night, September 26, and not simply because I’m proud of the place where I graduated from Law School in 1984.

Growing up in a stuggling Italian-American family on Long Island, Hofstra always represented a working family’s dream. For my mother and father, attending my law school graduation at Hofstra when both were nearing 70, was witnessing a child succeed beyond their wildest expectations. Like other Long Islanders, my parents sacrificed much by moving from Brooklyn to “the country” to give their children a better life, a backyard to play in, and a better education — the cost of which, meant higher property tax bills for many homeowners.

When their children moved out of the Long Island split-level homes in which we were raised, Long Island’s working and middle-class senior citizens found themselves saddled with property tax bills that exceeded their mortgage payments. Many faced unpleasant choices: moving away from family and friends to a more affordable place; moving in with family to make ends meet, or losing their homes entirely.

It was against that backdrop, as property taxes of financially strapped Long Island homeowners soared to among the highest in the nation, that New York’s Republican Governor George Pataki and both houses of the State Legislative enacted the STAR Program (NYS School Tax Relief) in 1997. The legislative intent of the school tax rebate program was clear: to reduce spiraling school district property taxes for senior citizens on a limited income so they could continue to live in their homes. The law, promoted by many Nassau & Suffolk County legislators, was clearly designed to keep struggling suburban senior citizens in their communities.

The STAR Program — which presently costs New York State’s taxpayers $3 billion per year — was never intended to benefit extraordinarily wealthy individuals, like Donald Trump. Strict income limitations were enacted in the Basic and Enhanced categories of the plan where a combined household income of less than $500,000 qualified a family for the Basic plan and an income under $86,000 for the Enhanced Benefits section. The clear intent of the legislation was that millionaires and billionaires did not warrant such tax relief.

However, the New York City Tax Department reported this month that one senior citizen who applied for the “Basic” STAR property tax credit, for two consecutive years, was Donald J. Trump. In order to do that, Trump would, under the law, need a household income of less than $500,000. The Trump Tower unit for which he is claiming the exemption would have to be his primary residence.

Trump’s troubling use of the STAR Program’s property tax rebate for economically hard-pressed senior citizens is made even more suspicious by the fact that he has long claimed an annual income in excess of $500,000. If his income is that high, then he used the STAR tax credit illegally; if his income is under $500,000 per year, then Trump has being lying about his income for years.

In addition to hosting the first Presidential Debate this year, there are two other ways Hofstra University can serve the nation — and millions of senior citizen suburban taxpayers — in the days leading up to, and after, the September 26th debate held on the Long Island campus. Hofstra’s Law School, headed by its’ brilliant Dean Eric Lane — my former law professor and an expert on Legislative Intent and legal craftsmanship — can encourage its’ Tax Law leaders to conduct pro-bono research into determining whether the STAR property tax rebate program was intended to benefit someone as, allegedly, wealthy as Donald Trump. While they’re at it, Hofstra’s Tax Law experts, can examine Trump’s $885 million of public tax abatements and benefits and determine if he’s lived up to his commitments to NYC and NYS.

Then, a small team of Hofstra Law’s professors in Ethics, a field pioneered by the legendary legal scholar Monroe Friedman, could examine the Trump Organization’s grab of $150,000 from a special 9/11 Recovery Fund, set aside for small businesses in NYC harmed by the attacks upon the World Trade Center. Following the 9/11 attacks, Trump claimed that his skyscraper at 40 Wall Street was eligible for such emergency relief funds, despite admitting that his building suffered no damage.

Hofstra University is the perfect place to raise these questions at the Presidential Debate, and beyond, since many citizens in the Long Island/NYC Metropolitan Area community it serves, have an extraordinarily high stake in the STAR Program’s continued solvency, in tax fairness, and in ensuring that limited 9/11 recovery funds are used only by eligible New Yorkers.