Tax proposal in New York would target private clubs like Trump National in Westchester

David McKay Wilson
Tax proposal in New York would target private clubs like Trump National in Westchester

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – Trump National Golf Club Westchester is one of the village of Briarcliff Manor’s biggest taxpayers, with its 2019 bill pegged at $487,000.

That hasn’t sat well with the Trump Organization, which since 2015 has sought to dramatically lower the club’s taxable value by 72 percent.

A Tax Watch investigation in 2015 during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was part of a national conversation about Trump’s holdings and his proclivity to inflate the value of his properties in certain filings while he devalued them when it came to his tax liability.

In Briarcliff Manor and the town of Ossining, which assesses the Trump course, that conversation continues.

File photo/The Journal News In Albany, the furor over Trump?s Briarcliff Manor assessment gambit has sparked inquiry into how New York golf courses are valued. Donald J. Trump at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor Sept. 25, 2010.

Trump in 2016 valued his Westchester course at $50 million in a financial disclosure statement he filed when he ran for president. That same year, his attorney valued Trump National for $1.5 million.

The uproar over Trump’s tax strategy in Westchester, which included a July 2017 march through the tree-lined Briarcliff streets to protest the tax issue, has inspired a bill in the state Legislature that would give municipalities new tools to fight the private golf clubs.

It would give municipal assessors the option to employ a different methodology to value golf courses for tax purposes from the one now in use, which has proved especially beneficial to private golf clubs.  

"Trump National was one of the most egregious examples," said Democratic state Sen. David Carlucci. "It looks like the property taxpayers in Ossining are getting fleeced. That's the example we use to make our case, and how the law has to be strengthened to give protections for property taxpayers."

But the push to reform state assessment practices, which could stop Trump National from winning a reduction in its taxable value in Westchester, has met opposition in Albany.  

"The Hudson Valley definitely needs revitalization, not some policy that will stifle growth or have the current businesses be so burdened they're forced to go out of business," GOP state Sen. George Amedore said. "They're trying to go after one or two country clubs – probably one in particular with a certain politician's name on it. But there are too many small businesses and others who'd be negatively affected by this proposal."

The current valuation system, which bases a golf club's value on its current use, has proved beneficial to the private clubs that serve as the playground for some of the Hudson Valley's wealthiest families.

In 2017, the Apawamis Club in Rye and Harrison won a 50 percent reduction in its tax bill to about $200,000. Apawamis, which in 2012 had a membership initiation fee of $69,500, received refunds estimated at about $900,000 for several years of overpayments after its taxable value dropped from $23 million to $14 million.

Entrance to Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor April 23, 2019.

Two state legislators who represent Briarcliff – Carlucci and Democratic Assemblywoman Sandy Galef – have sponsored a bill that could have an impact on Trump’s tax cases.

It would let assessors value golf courses at their “highest and best use,” which in the case of Trump National’s 140-acre club in Briarcliff, would be its potential for residential development.

Galef and Carlucci have organized a rally to support the legislation on Sunday.

The clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor April 23, 2019.

Galef, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Real Property Taxation, said the measure could make the golf clubs wary of seeking assessment reductions, even if the local governing board had yet to adopt the optional valuation method they want to make legal with the proposed law.

“If the communities have this option, maybe these golf courses would curtail some of their lawsuits,” she said. “It’s possible.”

Carlucci wants to stand up to the private golf clubs and protect local taxpayers. 

"It's another tool in the tool box to safeguard property taxpayers in a community," Carlucci said. "We need to make sure we aren't subsidizing private golf clubs on the backs of property-taxpayers and school children." 

Trump National's school taxes to the Briarcliff Manor school district since 2015 were $1.2 million – 67 percent of the club's property taxes. 

The bill’s enactment could blunt Trump’s bid to slash his property taxes by 72 percent over four years from 2015 to 2018, according to lawsuits filed in state Supreme Court.

If successful, those lawsuits would drop the club’s tax liability over those years from $1.9 million to $538,000, bringing substantial refunds from the Briarcliff Manor schools, town of Ossining, village of Briarcliff Manor, and Westchester County.

Trump National wants to cut the assessment by 90 percent in 2015 and 2016 to about $1.5 million, less than the cost of one of the condominiums along the fairways at Trump National. Trump National upped the estimated value to $7.5 million in 2017, the year Trump was inaugurated president.

Golfers on the course at Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor April 23, 2019.

Its value slipped to $6.5 million in 2018, according to the lawsuit filed by attorney William Sulzer.

The magnitude of refunds will depend on the impending court case. Most of these cases never go to trial, with out-of-court settlements negotiated between the municipal assessor and the landowner. Such cases can drag on for years, with property owners filing each year,until all the cases are bundled together on the court calendar.

That has yet to happen, said White Plains attorney Ben Leavitt, special counsel to the town of Ossining.

Calls to Sulzer and the Trump Organization were not returned.

The proposal has mobilized suburban golf clubs statewide, which have alerted their members to contact state legislators such as Democratic Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, whose district has several private clubs.

She said she was even approached in the waiting room of her doctor’s office earlier their week by a fellow patient who gave Paulin an earful about the bill’s potential to disrupt her club’s operation.

Paulin opposes the bill, noting that raising the property tax liability for the clubs could imperil their survival.

She said municipalities could end up with even less tax revenue if the municipality bought the land for open space, or lead to years of litigation over development, as has occurred in White Plains at the site of the former Ridgeway Country Club, or in Mamaroneck, where the Hampshire Country Club has been mired in a battle for years over residential development.

“We could lose a lot of open space,” Paulin said. “Perhaps the clubs aren’t paying as much in taxes as a bunch of houses, but do we want a bunch more houses when we cherish the open space?”

Follow David McKay Wilson on Twitter: @davidmckay415.

Contributing: Stephen Haynes of the Poughkeepsie Journal

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Tax proposal in New York would target private clubs like Trump National in Westchester