by Autumn Evans
A Wheatfield veteran promoted the Alternative Veterans' Tax Exemption at the Aug. 20 Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education meeting at Niagara-Wheatfield High School.
The exemption offers a 15 percent property tax reduction for any veteran who served during a time of war, with additional reductions for expeditionary medal recipients and those who have disabilities as a result of their service.
Veteran Robert Saunderson, whose daughter attends school in the district, encouraged the board to vote for the measure. He said it would make the area more accessible to veterans, who are leaving the area because it's too expensive.
"This is the perfect opportunity for Niagara-Wheatfield to lead, and start making the trend," he said. "This district has the opportunity to make a veteran-friendly area so that we can increase the population."
Unlike the STAR program, the state does not reimburse the district for the taxes veterans would have paid. Instead, the cost is picked up by other taxpayers. The district tax assessor reported there are 2,538 home-owning veterans in the Niagara-Wheatfield school district who currently receive partial exemptions.
The Guilderland Central School District in Albany County adopted the exemption earlier this year and estimated an increase of between 9 to 14 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value for non-veteran taxpayers.
Saunderson also asked the board to make more information about the program public, because he and other veterans he knows only found out about it recently.
"I've been helping vets for 12 straight years," Saunderson said. "I am probably one of the most involved people at my age - I'm 38, I've been doing this since I was 25 - and it passed right over my head."
He said many vets are unaware of the exemption program, and assume they are automatically enrolled, like in the STAR program. He told the board that an education process was necessary, especially because older vets would have trouble traveling for informational meetings during the winter months.
The board is waiting for more information to become available before voting.
"We do have the interest in doing it," said Board President Steven Sabo. "But for us to make a decision when there are so many complex pieces moving together ... it's just a matter of getting all the information right now."
N-W Superintendent Lynn Marie Fusco said the board has until March to vote on the issue, though they hope to make a decision sooner.
"We want to be timely, we want to be prepared before that," she said.
During the meeting, the board also voted to reduce hours and cut three jobs from the food service program, effective Sept. 1. The decision was the result of reports that the school's food service program was operating more than $175,000 in the red at the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Board member Richard Sirianni made a motion to table the decision for two months so that affected employees, who were given two weeks' notice, could have more time to adjust.
"Because of the lack of letting them know ahead of time, because they were just as shocked as we were, because there wasn't a whole lot of discussion on this issue in April or May, I was hoping we could table it for two or three months, just to give them some time to react," he said.
Fusco said the board could choose to table the decision, but it would only increase the current budget issues.
"It's not easy to make those reductions. It's not anything that I think any of (the board) want to do," she said. "It's certainly not something I want to do. But we are in a situation where one of our departments is operating in the red to the tune of $175,000."
The motion to suspend voting failed, with only Sirianni and member Amy Duell in favor. The motion to approve the personnel changes passed 5-2.
In other school board news:
•Sanborn resident RoseMary Warren addressed the board to report her continued difficulty in obtaining expense reports through a Freedom of Information request. She said she had trouble setting up meetings with board members to discuss the issue.
•Upon advice from its attorneys, the board will no longer vote on fundraisers held by independent organizations to benefit the school. Those fundraisers will still be presented as informational items.
•Also on advice from attorneys, board members will begin using district emails instead of personal emails, effective Sept. 3.