School districts ponder veterans exemption

By Ashley M. Casey

Although the March 1 deadline to grant a partial property tax exemption to wartime veterans has passed, local school boards are mulling the decision for 2015.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved a law in December 2013 giving school districts the same power as municipalities to authorize a property tax reduction of at least 15 percent to district residents who served in the armed forces during a time of war.

The Fulton City School District board of education first discussed the issue at its Feb. 11 meeting.

Director of Finance Kathy Nichols and Superintendent Bill Lynch told board members that based on data from Oswego County, veterans or their spouses own 774 parcels of land in the Fulton district.

Under the new law, $13,851,354 could be exempt from the district’s assessed value if the board authorizes the veterans’ exemption.

“We had received notification (of the law) in early February,” Fulton board president David Cordone said. “There wasn’t a lot of time for us to investigate … the majority of the board felt we didn’t have enough information to vote for the March 1 deadline.”

If boards did not pas a resolution to grant the exemption by the March 1 deadline, they can consider the matter again next year.

Cordone said the Fulton board decided to gather more data in order to “be prepared to vote next year.”

“It’s up for discussion, but we need community input,” said Erin Hess, president of the Hannibal school board. “It’s really not so much for the board to decide — it’s up to the community.”

Hess echoed a concern that Fulton board member Christine Plath voiced in February.

“The only big question about it is the exemption gets picked up by other taxpayers, so it’s up for debate,” Hess said.

In February, Plath told her fellow board members she didn’t “see how certain households (in the Fulton district) can handle an increase in the tax rate.”

“It is going to be an impact (on the other taxpayers),” Mexico school board president Jim Emery said.

“With, for example, the STAR program, the state reimburses the districts. With this … it leaves it up to the district to shift the cost to other taxpayers. It puts the school board in an unenviable position.”

Emery said Mexico and other rural, lower-income districts would have a harder time distributing the cost of the veterans’ exemption to other taxpayers.

Across the state, school board members seem to have their reservations as well.

According the New York State School Boards Association, 69 percent of board members in an informal poll opposed the veterans’ exemption.

“School board members strongly support our veterans, but they believe that reimbursement for the veteran’s exemption should be covered by the state rather than by other local taxpayers,” school boards association Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer said in a press release.

“The law as is presents school boards with a dilemma,” Kremer said. “If they adopt the exemption, that would increase taxes for other taxpayers in their district. If they do not adopt the exemption, they could be viewed as not being supportive of veterans.”

In Oswego County, several municipalities have authorized a similar property tax reduction for Cold War veterans.

In 2009, the county legislature passed “Cold War Veterans Property Tax Exemption Act,” which granted a basic 15 percent reduction to veterans. Combat veterans receive an additional 10 percent exemption, and those with service-related disabilities receive even more.

Donna Kestner, director of the Oswego County Veterans Service Agency, said the following municipalities granted exemptions to Cold War vets: city of Fulton, Amboy, Minetto, Oswego Town, Palermo, Parish, Sandy Creek, Schroeppel, Volney and Williamstown. The city of Oswego and Scriba have not approved the exemption.

“I think it’s excellent,” Kestner said of the potential exemption from school districts. “I’d love to see our vets get school tax exemptions.”

Kestner said she could not make it to the Fulton board meeting Feb. 11 but thought the Fulton board was “in full support of the veterans, and I appreciate that.”

“Some places, they’re not as supportive as they are here,” she said.

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