Former President Donald Trump and his business empire always fight aggressively to come out on top—and this time, the sucker on the other end of the deal is a public school district.
For seven years, the Trump National Golf Club Westchester just north of New York City battled with the local government to lower its property tax bill—while simultaneously inflating its value elsewhere by millions. Then in August, emboldened by another golf club’s victory in court, the Trump club pressured locals to strike a deal and cut its assessed value by a third.
That means the Trump club can claim it overpaid taxes, so local governments are forking over cash. But of all the local entities stuck paying fat refund checks worth about $850,000, the worst hit was the tiny suburban Briarcliff Manor Union Free School District. The public education system—which consists of a single elementary, middle, and high school—has picked up the biggest tab, worth $588,155.12.
One local official involved in the process told The Daily Beast that the schools won’t be making any cuts, instead just passing along the higher costs to people who actually live in the area.
“This is freaking annoying that a scoundrel won’t pay taxes. My taxes are higher because his taxes are lower,” said the official, who wasn’t allowed to speak publicly.
It’s a small zone, so locals are more likely to actually feel it. With only 2,399 parcels on the books in the village of Briarcliff, taxpayers will be shelling out an extra $245 on average next year—depending on their property value.
“It’s significant in the sense that this has to be made up by all the other residents that pay taxes, and most of them would not have approved a golf course that they would eventually have to subsidize,” said Fernando Gonzalez, the tax assessor for the local town of Ossining.
“Anything Trump-related is despicable and/or corrupt,” said Marie Chalita, a homeowner in Briarcliff Manor who told The Daily Beast she is “not happy about paying it.”
This Trump deal is the reason the Briarcliff school board was forced to increase its budget by 1 percent in October, when it added over half a million dollars to “judgements and claims.” Before that, the school system had only allocated a measly $20,246 to incoming lawsuits.
The massive tax refund would have been enough to pay up to 10 new teachers’ salaries, according to numbers listed in a recent union labor contract.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, this Trump golf club filed yearly grievances since 2015 seeking to vastly reduce its property tax bill against every local entity involved: Westchester County, the town of Ossining, the village of Briarcliff, and Briarcliff public schools.
For example, in 2016, the company challenged its government-assessed value of $15.1 million, arguing that the real value was actually $7.5 million. Local governments refused to budge and let the sitting U.S. president reduce his tax bill—while claiming on presidential disclosure forms that his club was actually worth at least a whopping $50 million.
But the tide turned in April 2021, when some of these same local governments lost a tax value fight against another nearby golf course, the Sleepy Hollow Country Club.
New York State Judge Bruce E. Tolbert ruled that “there is no mandate to value golf courses or country clubs using any particular techniques,” allowing the members-only club to shrink its property value. The judicial opinion established something of a precedent, making municipal governments think twice about mounting a defense to miserly golf clubs in court.
“This one decision completely changed how golf courses are now taxed,” said Stephen P. Dewey, the attorney who represented Ossining in its deal with the Trump golf club. In the end, the town got stuck paying a $20,444 refund.
When the Ossining board voted to approve the settlement in July, town supervisor Dana A. Levenberg explained that the move was the “prudent and fiscally responsible course for the town.”
“It avoids what would be a lengthy and costly litigation, as well as the possibility that the town would not prevail in the litigation—in which case the town would end up worse off in both the short and long term. Also, although both sides gave back during the negotiation, the settlement values are closer to those presented by the town than the golf club,” she said during the meeting.
On Aug. 13, that same judge signed off on a settlement agreement between Trump National Golf Club LLC and Ossining and Briarcliff’s school district. The deal cut the assessed value from roughly $15 million down to $9.5 million.
It was a defeat that the local elected representative in the state’s legislature, Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, had tried to avoid for years. Back in 2019, she introduced a bill seeking to value golf courses based on “the property’s highest and best use rather than its current use.” Galef felt that system would more accurately reflect the wealth behind the region’s 18-hole golf courses, which are situated on forested landscapes with beautiful, bubbling streams and rolling hills flanked by green mountains.
Galef told The Daily Beast that she was disappointed that Trump finally won his tax fight.
“I feel badly about it. I always want people to pay their fair share in taxes,” she said. “He was the person that figured out every way to get around something. If somebody really looked at his business books, they’d probably be amazed.”
That’s actually what several New York prosecutors are working on at the moment. Last year, Ossining received a subpoena from Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah for her investigation into Trump’s wildly fluctuating valuations for the golf course. That effort echoes a long-running and ongoing civil probe by New York Attorney General Letitia James into alleged tax dodging and bank fraud. Then there’s the joint criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney and AG James, which has already ensnared the Trump Organization and chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg for alleged tax fraud.
“It’s not a drop in the bucket. It’s a lot of money for a school district, even a well-resourced school district. Just because we settled doesn’t mean we’re happy about it,” said another local government official, who preferred to remain anonymous.