March 9, 1998
Charles J. Hamill, Chairman
Town of Grafton Board of Assessors
P.O. Box G
Grafton, NY 12082
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue
advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the
information presented in your correspondence.
Dear Mr. Hamill:
I have received your letter of February 10 and the correspondence
from Assemblyman Casale in which he expressed concern that senior citizens
may be reluctant to apply for a STAR exemption because the information that
they must submit includes sensitive personal financial details. You have
sought guidance regarding the treatment of those records.
It is noted that the issue has been discussed with representatives of the
Office of Real Property Services, and that we agree that income tax forms or
other personal financial information submitted by senior citizens seeking
STAR exemptions may be withheld from the public. Although the Freedom
of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access, §87(2)(b)
authorizes an agency to withhold records insofar as disclosure would result
in "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." I point out that the New
York State Tax Law contains provisions that require the confidentiality of
records reflective of the particulars of a person's income or payment of taxes
(see e.g., §697, Tax Law). As such, it would appear that the Legislature felt
that disclosure of records concerning taxpayers' income would constitute an
improper or "unwarranted" invasion of personal privacy.
In short, I believe that an agency, such as the Town of Grafton, has
clear authority to withhold records submitted by residents insofar as they
include intimate or sensitive details of their lives, including copies of tax forms
given to assessors in conjunction with an application for a STAR exemption.
While I believe that most assessment records are and have historically
been public, and that the public has the right to know that a person has been
granted a veteran's or senior citizen's exemption, again, records containing
intimate personal information may be withheld and should be kept apart from
public records in order to guarantee their security. In order to ensure the
protection of privacy, it has been suggested that assessors maintain tax forms
and similar records in secure facilities separate from other assessment records
that are generally public.
I hope that I have been of assistance. Should any further questions
arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Hon. Pat M. Casale