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State was wrong to dump responsibility for tax breaks for veterans on school districts

Veterans have stepped forward to defend this country. They are true heroes who deserve virtually everything we can do for them.

That is why the current debate about whether to extend a partial property tax break to veterans is so wrenching.

No one wants to stick it to the Vietnam War veteran who may still be suffering from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. No one wants to deny financial help to veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan who might still be trying to find their way back to society.

But there is a struggle going on in school districts following the passage of legislation signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that allows districts to offer property tax exemptions to veterans who served during wartime.

State lawmakers went about this the wrong way. If the Legislature thinks veterans deserve tax breaks, it should reimburse districts for the lost revenue, as happens with the STAR property tax exemptions.

By passing the buck, lawmakers managed to pit veterans who put their lives on hold to serve their country against well-meaning citizens who want to express their appreciation – but are concerned about what could amount to significant tax losses.

Veterans already receive some property tax breaks. The county offers 15 percent off the assessment for noncombat veterans and another 10 percent for combat veterans, and up to 50 percent for disabled veterans, as reported in The News.

In the Hamburg School District, which is considering adding the veterans exemption, 1,334 veterans receive the Alternative Veterans Exemption on town and county taxes. If the district approves the new break, they would also see their school taxes drop, often by hundreds of dollars.

According to another story in The News, the Alden Central Schools website shows 123 veterans eligible for the full exemption. If each one were to receive the full combat veterans exemption, it would amount to nearly a $2 million decrease in taxable assessed value for the district.

From Orchard Park to Hamburg, Iroquois, Alden and beyond, school boards are holding emotional public hearings on the topic. The News has received several letters on the subject with strong arguments for and against the exemption.

Arguing against tax breaks for veterans is difficult, except for this: Tax cuts for some residents have to be made up by the rest of the taxpayers in the district. New Yorkers already pay sky-high property taxes. Raising them even higher is the wrong way to honor veterans.

In Iroquois, a resident chided the State Legislature for “dumping off” the decision onto local school boards. The state needs to revisit this arrangement.