A big crowd of veterans erupted in applause after the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School Board approved Tuesday night a school tax exemption for veterans in an estimated 4,300 households in the district.
The exemption is expected to save combat veterans $187 per year in taxes on a $100,000 assessed home, according to district officials.
But it will mean higher taxes for non-veteran households that have to make up the difference. A non-veteran household is expected to pay an extra $13.76 per year on a $100,000 assessed home, or a .69 percent increase.
For a year, veterans have been asking the Ken-Ton board to approve an exemption similar to what has been offered veterans by counties, towns and villages for at least 25 years. A 2013 state law permits school districts to given veterans the tax break, but less than half of the state's school districts have done that.
After cheering the School Board, veterans wearing jackets and hats with insignias related to their military service, momentarily interrupted the meeting to walk up and shake the hands of board members.
Veteran Edward S. Dudek, a Kenmore resident who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, said the exemption recognizes, "It's the veteran who has answered the call and always given their all."
Board President Jill O'Malley said that when the veterans first raised the issue, the board was facing too many challenges – including the loss of tax revenue because of the closing of the Huntley Power Plant – to approve the exemption.
This year, with consolidations and staff cuts behind them, and the district for the first time in many years expecting to keep tax rates flat, board vice president Andrew Gianni said it is the perfect opportunity to try the exemption.
Under the adopted exemption plan:
- Non-combat veterans may exempt 15 percent of their property value or up to $6,000, whichever is less.
- Combat veterans may exempt up to 25 percent of their property value or $10,000, whichever is less.
- Disabled veterans may exempt up to 50 percent of their property value or $20,000, whichever is less.
The board voted to adopt the lowest exemption it had considered to lessen the impact on non-veteran households. Had it chosen the biggest exemption considered, combat veterans with a $100,000 assessed home would save $469 a year, but non-veteran households would pay nearly $40 a year more in school taxes.
Board member Thomas Reigstad told the board he served in the military, but he couldn't support a more generous exemption.
"I heard the passion expressed by veterans and their advocates and a couple remarks stuck with me. One that an additional $50 a year for non-veterans would not be a burden and the statement that 'it would only cost two pizzas and a beverage for non-veteran taxpayers,' " said Reigstad. "But I think we have to be aware of all of our constituencies."
He said 25 percent of the district's population is struggling financially and at-risk, so he wanted to minimize the impact on them.
O'Malley said after the meeting that she also comes from a military family. "It's not lost on me, the sacrifice our veterans have made, especially our combat veterans," she said.
Assistant Superintendent for Finance John Brucato noted the School Board was shifting some of the tax burden from exempt to non-exempt taxpayers.
"You are taking the portion of taxes that the veterans pay and spreading it out among the other taxpayers," said Brucato. "There's some opposition to the governor placing that burden on school districts."
In 2016, the New York State School Boards Association came out against the veterans exemption in its current form. It wants the state to fund veterans' school tax exemptions, not local taxpayers.