by Autumn Evans
After a three-hour meeting that, at times, became contentious, the Niagara-Wheatfield School Board voted Wednesday night to approve the Alternative Veterans' Tax Exemption at the lowest level.
Half a dozen veterans urged the board to adopt the measure during the public hearing held at 6 p.m. in the Adult Learning Center.
First to speak was Dennis Smilinch, who said he was an advocate for both children and veterans.
"One of the biggest points that we have in the community is that we just had the greatest generation in this country. Eleven hundred veterans are passing away every day from that generation," Smilinch said. "Today, we now face ourselves with a different generation ... the young Afghan/Iraq veteran. That is one the biggest assets of our community. I'm not asking for the exemption, because it takes away from one taxpayer to another taxpayer. I'm asking for that exemption, or at least supporting the exemption, because its one of the greatest tools that were ever used in this nation is the G.I. bill.
"If we adopt this, this will bring those young volunteers into our community. This will establish a group of young people that are volunteers. ...They're willing to work and give everything they can."
This idea was echoed by Charles Kegler, first vice commander for Niagara County in charge of membership.
"This will gain traction for serving not only the veterans who already live here, but it's also going to encourage more veterans to come back to see the community that they may have grown up in and went to school in," he said, adding it could also encourage high school seniors to consider military service as an option after graduation.
No complaints were brought up by any opposing parties, at least not in-person. In fact, the only opposition came from an anonymous letter delivered to board members earlier that day. It was signed "a concerned Niagara-Wheatfield school district taxpayers group," but no names were recorded, making it impossible to discern how many parties were actually represented by it.
Board member Christopher Peters suggested the letter be read aloud in the interest of fairness, and to give the veterans a chance to respond. The letter, read by President Steven Sabo, argued residents felt uncomfortable opposing the exemption for fear they would be labeled "anti-patriotic."
It read, in part, "First of all, let me say this letter does not intend to diminish the contribution these men and women gave to our country through their service. However, does this warrant an additional financial break that others will need to come up with more money, so they no longer pay their share?"
It also argued that, if an exemption was given to veterans, the same consideration should be given to first responders, or it "appears discriminating."
Later, the letter read, "We are a community and, as such, we should expect to pay our fair share and not expect our neighbors to carry extra so that we can have it easier. We understand that there may be veterans who could use the financial break, but the same can be said of many of our non-veteran neighbors. ... Do you really want to be the reason their families are now in a worse financial position, all because you chose to tip the scales in favor of a particular group of taxpayers?"
After the veterans had spoken and the letter was read, board members offered their responses.
"I agree with this letter, to an extent, but I also believe that nobody understands what a veteran goes through, especially a wartime veteran," Peters said. "This country is not taking care of its veterans the way they should be, and I think something is deserving. I know it's financially going to hurt other families. I think we need to look at that overall dollar value and minimize the hurt as much (as possible), but also be able to provide a benefit."
Board member Gina Terbot disagreed, saying she did understand the impact, because of her experiences with her father, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after his service in Vietnam.
"I do get what happens to some veterans who come back and have a rough time. I've lived it for 47 years of my life, and I'm honored to say that I know what it's like, because my dad was awesome," she said. However, she also said she understood the concerns of the writers of the letter.
"This is where I struggle, because veterans do deserve every advantage that they can get - as well as the first responders that are mentioned in here (in the letter)," Terbot said. "But my job as a board member is to do what I can for the students, and provide an education for our students, and with our current financial situation ... I am completely torn.
"Personally, I support it. Personally, I can afford it. But I'm here to represent every taxpayer in our community."
Board member Amy Deull said she was unable to find some information about the exemption, including the amount of money to be lost from the reduced STAR benefits that would result if it passed.
However, Smilinch was able to answer some of her questions, clarifying two veterans living on the same property could not receive double benefits, and only wartime veterans are eligible for the exemption.
Board member Darren Sneed, who had previously said he would not vote because he is a veteran, announced he had changed his mind and would be voting.
"I was thinking about not voting today, but that would be a cop-out," he said. "Whatever my vote is going to be ... I'm going to have to do some serious soul-searching."
One thing it seemed the School Board, veterans and writers of the anonymous letter all agreed upon was that Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not properly execute the law, and the state, not the taxpayers, should be covering the lost taxes. Sneed said it "sickens" him the measure was passed on to school districts, and worried it would divide communities.
Nonetheless, the board did accept the responsibility.
After an hour-long public hearing, the board entered into executive session for about 40 minutes before returning to hold its regular meeting, during which it voted on the exemption.
The measure passed, with five for, zero against, and one abstention by Deull. The board approved it at the lowest rate, with a savings limit of $6,000 for wartime vets, $4,000 for combat vets, and up to $20,000 for veterans with disabilities, with total maximum savings up to $30,000.
The vote was taken individually, with many members giving speeches before announcing their decisions.
"Thank God for the compromise. I don't know if the veterans understand this or not, but if we'd have (voted for the basic exemption), I couldn't vote the way I'm going to vote right now," Sneed said. "The only thing I ask the veterans to do ... the way you lobby right now for the veterans, I challenge you to continue to lobby, for the students, for our ... funds that the state is keeping."
He added, "Do what you've got to do, bring the community together, to get the state to do what they've got to do. I'm telling you, we're on life support here at Niagara-Wheatfield. ...Hopefully it tightens the community up, so we can fight the right people."
Peters said, "My $40 or $50 or whatever this is going to cost me, I'm all for it. I think you deserve it."
Sabo said, "We're doing something right now that should have already been done in Albany. ... While we have the gumption to do this that the governor does not have, I'm proud to do this."
Terbot, agreeing with Sneed's statement he hoped the exemption would strengthen the community, said, "I sit here and I am so torn. The letter says that it could polarize our community and that's why they haven't spoken out - they want a unified community. ... I'm going to vote 'yes,' and I'm going to challenge every veteran here who has, in the past, said, 'We're not voting for our school budget,' to now support us, to show the community that you also are going to give back to them and do it for the kids."
Deull abstained on the grounds her husband is a veteran, and she did not believe it was right for her to vote on something that would affect her own taxes.
"It's not that I'm not interested," she said. "But I do not, as a former government contracting officer, think it is appropriate for me to vote for a tax decrease for myself. ... I can't vote for something that would enrich myself."
Sirianni, the last to vote, simply added, "I can't say any more than what everyone has said - I simply vote 'yes.' "
As Sabo announced the vote passed, the veterans in the room erupted into applause.
At the end of the meeting, Air Force veteran Paul Bax, who has spoken at multiple board meetings in support of the exemption, thanked the board for its decision.
"I know that we've disagreed on many things in the last few years," he said. "But, that being said, I promise you that I will work for your children to help you get the money that you need."