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Veterans push Ken-Ton School Board for tax exemption

Many school districts in Western New York have decided whether or not to offer a tax exemption to wartime veterans since the legislation was passed in Albany and signed by the governor in December 2013.

But not in Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda.

And the Ken-Ton School Board during its regular meeting Tuesday night got an earful from veteran residents -- who called on the district to offer the exemption to the district's approximately 2,300 veteran households.

Ted Balbierz, a district parent and Air Force veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, spoke first and ticked off a list of neighboring school districts he said had adopted varying levels of an exemption for veterans.

"We stand before you united tonight, veterans who have served our country during peacetime at home as well as combat abroad, both able-bodied and disabled with scars seen and unseen, requesting that you as a board consider adopting some form of veterans tax exemption moving forward," he said.

The Alternative Veterans Exemption program is the same tax exemption program that has been offered by counties, towns and villages for at least 25 years.

But when taxes go down for one group, they shift to the rest of the taxpayers in a district.

That redistribution has been a point of contention for some districts considering adopting the exemption.

The Ken-Ton board discussed the exemption in March. The board then was informed that a combat veteran who owns an average home in the district could receive a reduction between $192.47 and $484.64, depending on the exemption level adopted. The tax rate for the average home owned by a non-veteran would increase between 0.75 percent and 2.02 percent.

But the board took no action at the time, noting many residents live on fixed incomes and their tax burden would increase. At that time, the district also faced an uncertain budget due to the closure of the Huntley station power plant and the loss of $3 million in annual revenue.

Balbierz acknowledged that the burden would fall on others. He noted that a combat veteran with an average home in the neighboring Sweet Home School District sees a tax break of $412 and the average non-veteran resident sees an increase of $25.

School Board President Jill O'Malley asked the district's administration to compile information on what other local districts have done on the issue, for next month's meeting.

The New York State School Boards Association this year came out against the veterans exemption in its current form and said "any new school property tax exemption enacted by the state should be funded by the state, instead of the local taxpayer."

The association supports bills in the state Senate and Assembly that would require the state to reimburse local school districts for taxes that would have been paid by veterans who receive an exemption. The legislation also would cap eligibility for the exemption to veterans earning less than $500,000 a year.

The association also surveyed districts across the state between March and May and found about 41 percent of all districts in the state -- 254 -- have adopted the exemption since the law was enacted in 2013, while 362 decided not to. Most of the districts that adopted the exemption -- about two-thirds -- are downstate, south of Albany.

Of the 51 school districts in Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming counties that responded to the survey,  29 -- 57 percent -- had adopted the alternative veterans exemption. More than half -- 55 percent -- of the districts said they did not adopt the exemption because they did not want to redistribute the tax burden, the survey found.

Teresa Dash, a district resident and spouse of a veteran, also spoke to a packed Community Room in the Philip Sheridan Building. She agreed it was unfair for state lawmakers to leave the decision to individual school districts rather than passing its own statewide exemption for veterans.

"I say here tonight -- I'd like to represent all these fine gentlemen -- we say, 'Enough is enough,'" she said.

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