Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 10, 2014

Panel recommends letting voters OK vet tax breaks

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Voters should decide whether or not to offer partial school tax exemptions for military veterans, according to the Lockport City School District's audit committee, Board of Education members were told Monday night.

Board Vice President David Nemi, who chairs the audit committee, said while they support the idea of assisting veterans, members felt the decision should be up to the taxpayers. The committee recommended putting the veteran exemptions up to a public vote.

"Taxpayers are the ones who are going to pay more," Nemi said. "We think it's a great thing, but we feel the best thing would be to let the voters decide."

Under a new state law signed into effect last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, school districts can choose whether to authorize veterans exemptions. The authorized breaks are: a 15 percent reduction in assessed property value for veterans who served during a time of war; another 10 percent reduction for those who were in a combat zone; and an additional reduction for veterans with service-connected disabilities.

Municipalities have been authorized to offer partial exemptions to veterans since 1984. The new law simply extends that authority to school districts, but it also leaves up to school boards the choice whether and how to implement exemptions, by a board vote or a public referendum.

According to Deborah Coder, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance, the exemptions would reduce the amount of school taxes that veterans pay, but would not affect Lockport's tax levy, the total amount of tax revenue that the school district raises.

Bottom line, she said: If the veterans exemptions were adopted, school taxes would likely increase for property owners who don’t qualify for the exemption.

If the exemptions were adopted, veterans could save a few hundred dollars in school taxes — but the exemptions could force an increase in the general tax rate, Coder said.

Using this year’s school budget and tax levy, for instance, she estimated the tax rate would increase by 36 cents, to $25.75 per $1,000 of assessed value. On a home assessed at $100,000, the school tax bill would rise by $36.27 with the STAR rebate.

Trustee Anthony Molinaro, who sits on the audit committee, said approving the exemptions wasn't an easy decision to make.

"We all are related to a vet, or know a vet, but we felt that (it was) in the best interest of everyone that it be put before everybody," Molinaro said.

Coder said an official Board of Education resolution is being drawn up spelling out the exemption levels that would be offered.

If the board does decide to put the exemptions to a public vote, a proposition most likely would appear on the ballot at the May 20 annual budget vote.

And if taxpayers give their blessing, the exemptions would take effect in September 2015.

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241, or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.