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Tax breaks for veterans put school boards in tight spot, but most OK it

Some go high, some go low, and some don’t go at all.

Twenty-three school districts in Erie County have granted tax exemptions for veterans since the state Legislature placed the idea in their laps a little over three years ago. Five districts have not.

Tax exemptions for veterans put school board members in a tough spot. They want to acknowledge the sacrifices veterans made. But when an exemption is granted, taxes shift to every other taxpayer, which is why some board members are reluctant. And school taxes are one of the biggest financial obligations for property owners.

Frontier Central School Board members currently are weighing the exemption, and board members feel the different interests tugging at them.

“We don’t want to look as though we don’t respect or appreciate what our service members have done for our country. It’s difficult, and you almost feel a little un-American,” said Janet MacGregor Plarr, president of the Frontier Central School Board.

Veterans asked the School Board last month to hold a referendum to find out how district residents feel. The referendum is not binding. Only the School Board can grant the exemption.

The exemption is similar to what counties, towns and villages have offered veterans for at least 25 years. The exemption covers veterans of World War II, the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf conflict,

School boards can adopt different levels of exemptions. In each level are three tiers for wartime, combat and those who were disabled during service.

In Ken-Ton, the exemption is expected to save combat veterans $187 per year in taxes on a home assessed at $100,000, according to district officials. As a result, a non-veteran household is expected to pay an extra $13.76 per year on a home assessed at $100,000.

A higher exemption had been considered and would have saved combat veterans $469 on a house assessed at $100,000, adding nearly $40 a year more in school taxes for a non-veteran household.

While veterans often speak up for the exemption at school board meetings, not many others come out publicly against it.

“We earned this. I don’t mean to be bold,” Dennis Chapman, a member of the Hamburg town Veterans Committee, told the Frontier board. “You get drafted, you’re taken away from your family.”

When Ken-Ton was considering the exemption, Dave Willard thought it was a good idea. The a 69-year-old Marine veteran came home in 1969 after 20 months in Vietnam.

“It was a tough time to get out,” recalled Willard, Erie County commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Veterans have paid their school taxes for years, and when the exemption was made possible, members of veterans groups started going to school board meetings.

“That’s what helps get them passed,” he said.

School board members
School board members are not happy having to choose between giving veterans a break and burdening other taxpayers, especially after the state cut school aid in recent years.

Plarr, the Frontier board president, said she believes state legislators wanted to do something for veterans, but did not want to fund it.

“I guess it’s a lot easier to pass the buck to us,” she said.

Other taxpayers needed to be considered, too, she said.

“I think we need to do our due diligence and see not only how this would affect a veteran but how is this going to affect the rest of the people we represent,” Plarr said. “Here is a real ripple effect.”

The Kenmore-Tonawanda School Board considered the exemption for more than a year before the board approved it last month. The board decided not to approve the exemption a year ago because of the closing of the Huntley station power plant resulted in loss of tax revenue. But veterans called on board members again in December to pass the exemption.

There was much discussion in Tonawanda about the exemption, and which level to enact. The board chose a lower level.

At Eden Central, residents gave thumbs-up to an exemption in a straw poll in 2014. When the school board approved a less generous exemption, it drew the fury from unhappy veterans.

“What you did was sleazy, slimy and lowball,” one veteran told board members.

School Boards in Akron, Sloan, Lackawanna and Lake Shore have not enacted the exemption.

The state
The New York State School Boards Association opposed the state legislation for districts to offer or reject the exemption, and also suggested the state reimburse school districts for the taxes lost to the exemptions, similar to the STAR tax exemption.

When a veterans exemption is enacted, it also reduces the amount of state reimbursement a school district receives to make up for the STAR exemption because of how exemptions are applied. The veterans exemption is applied first, followed by the senior citizens exemption and then STAR. New York State reimburses districts for the STAR tax break, but the veterans tax break brings the taxable value down before STAR is applied, resulting in a smaller STAR payment.

Bills to ensure school districts do not lose money have been introduced in the state Senate and Assembly, but they did not get out of committees last year.

Assemblyman Raymond Walter, R-Amherst, said he encouraged boards in his district to adopt the exemption. But he also has co-sponsored legislation that would have the state make up for the cost.

“They don’t mind that shift, that burden falling on them to give the veterans a benefit,” Walter said of other taxpayers, but he added, “Let’s do the right thing and absorb that state wide, rather than put it on property taxpayers.”

Walter said bills with a budget effect often don’t get signed by the governor outside the budget process.



23 Erie County school districts have approved veterans exemptions

District          Date approved
Alden                    9/29/15
Amherst               2/2/16
Cheektowaga      12/9/14
Clarence              1/12/15
Cleve-Hill            11/16/16
Depew                  9/15/15
East Aurora         9/9/15
Eden                     12/17/14
Gowanda             7/29/14
Grand Island      3/23/15
Hamburg            10/13/15
Holland               1/12/15
Iroquois              10/7/15
Ken-Ton             2/14/17
Lancaster           11/17/14
Maryvale            9/21/15
North Collins    10/28/14
Orchard Park    10/13/15
Springville         12/16/14
Sweet Home      10/27/15
Tonawanda        5/26/15
West Seneca      3/30/15
Williamsville     2/10/15


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