by Autumn Evans
Residents of the Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District will soon have the chance to share their thoughts on the proposed Alternative Veterans' Tax Exemption at a public hearing set for mid-December.
An overview of the exemption, including estimations on how it would affect tax rates, was presented at the school board's Nov. 19 meeting.
The exemption was signed into law last year, and it allows school districts to offer veterans the same tax benefits towns do.
However, the state does not reimburse the district for money those veterans would have paid. Because the tax levy itself does not change, the money must still be collected. As such, although the measure lowers taxes for veterans, it also raises taxes for non-veterans.
The tax increase was a matter of concern for board member Gina Terbot, who worried that her constituents weren't informed enough about the measure. She said she spoke to 35 people, and only one of them realized their own taxes would go up if the exemption passed.
"I'm very passionate because I am a very strong veterans advocate," she said, adding that her father served in Vietnam. "I've been struggling because I, personally, can afford the increase, but so many other people I've talked to said, 'I can't afford any more in taxes, and if I pay more, I want it to go to my kids.' "
Board President Steven Sabo disagreed that the board should wait because the public was uninformed.
"When you keep saying that the people haven't had a chance to find out about this ... we had the first meeting about this in February," he said. "We had a hearing. We said we wanted to do it then. We talked about doing it. ... We've had the papers cover it not just in our district but in news from across the state of what the implications are: it's in there.
"So what we're saying is, basically, 'Well, you know, people, you're not doing your job to keep up on things by going to meetings, by reading the paper, by researching things that are going on in politics yourselves, so we're going to delay this even more ... because you guys aren't doing what you should be doing to find out about this.'"
Board members Darren Sneed, Richard Sirianni and Chris Peters all agreed with Sabo that the matter shouldn't be delayed past the next meeting.
However, Sneed, who said he would be abstaining from the vote because, as a veteran, he would be eligible to receive the benefits, also raised concerns about how the measure would affect district retirees living off fixed incomes.
"It's a nice chunk of change, but I can't just think about just me," he said.
Some school board members met with local veterans in September to hear their thoughts on the matter.
Peters was one of the members who attended, and he said the veterans weren't asking for the highest exemption level offered by the state.
"What they said is ... 'We don't want you shooting for the max so that all of sudden our neighbors who live next door are mad at us,' " he said. "They don't want to be pinned against their neighbors in that way either."
Wheatfield resident and Vietnam veteran Paul Bax also spoke to the board to share his views on the measure.
"We just had Veterans Day, and I'll bet you that everyone on this board was thanking a vet for what they had," he said. "My dog tags are 48 years old as of Oct. 24 of this year, so I would appreciate anything that you could do to help the veterans."
Another considerable issue some board members had was that they were unable to put the matter to a public vote. Terbot in particular said she was uncomfortable with increasing taxes without allowing residents to vote.
"I am not opposed to the veterans' credit, I am opposed to the way the government is making us do it, by putting it on the backs of non-veterans," Terbot said. "I think it's really awful that our elected officials put this on school board members, and have taken away the taxpayers' right to vote on their tax increase for their school district."
Sneed agreed, calling it an election ploy by Cuomo.
Bax, however, said that as elected officials, they needed to vote for their constituents.
"I've said this before to this board: If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen," he said. "The government of New York state gave you the authority to make the decision. Whether you like it or not, that is what the state gave."
The state offers three levels of the exemption, which determine the maximum amount of tax money a veteran can be exempted from. There are also three categories veterans can fall under, each of which offer a different percent decrease, with the effects stacking between levels.
The basic wartime exemption is for any veteran who served during a time of war, and it offers a 15 percent reduction. The combat zone exemption is for veterans who served in combat zones, and it offers a 10 percent reduction. The disability exemption is for veterans who have disabilities due to their service, and it offers a reduction equal to half of his or her disability rating.
At the basic exemption level, $12,000/$8,000/$40,000, for example, a wartime veteran could receive a 15 percent reduction, not to exceed $12,000, a combat zone veteran could receive a 10 percent reduction, but only up to $8,000, and a veteran with full disabilities sustained during service could receive a 50 percent reduction totaling no more than $40,000.
At the basic level, a veteran who qualified for all three categories could receive up to a 75 percent reduction in taxes, totaling no more than $60,000.
The other two levels are $9,000/$6,000/$30,0000 and $6,000/$4,000/$20,000. A district can adopt a lower level and raise it in later years, if it chooses to. Each town in the district must use the same level.
Using data about residents currently receiving the town-level veterans exemption, School Business Administrator Allison Brady offered estimates on how non-veterans' tax rates would be affected. The exact percentage increase varied by town.
Under the basic level of the exemption, taxes per $1,000 of assessed valuation in Wheatfield would go up by 29 cents, a 1.12 percent increase; in the Town of Niagara, 52 cents (1.76 percent); in Cambria, 25 cents (1.4 percent); and in Lewiston, 54 cents (2.42 percent).
At the basic level, a resident with a homestead property with an assessed value of $150,000 would pay about $43 more in Wheatfield, $78 more in Niagara, $38 in Cambria and $81 more in Lewiston. At the lowest level, they would pay about $22 in Wheatfield, $43 in Niagara, $42 in Lewiston and $19 in Cambria.
Veterans, the spouses of veterans or the unremarried surviving spouses of veterans are eligible to apply for the exemption. As of the most recent district assessments, there are about 1,552 eligible properties in the district.
More information about the exemption can be found in the PowerPoint shown at the school board meeting, available online at http://www.nwcsd.k12.ny.us/Page/5343.
The public hearing on the exemption will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, in the Adult Learning Center of Niagara-Wheatfield High School. Afterward, the board can vote on it that night, or at any meeting before March 1, 2015.