Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

Opinion

March 3, 2014

CONFER: Veterans tax exemptions make for uneasy school boards

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Following a debate that began as far back as 2006, last year the state Senate finally came to agreement with the Assembly on a bill that allows school districts to extend property tax exemptions to veterans. It was signed into law by Governor Cuomo in late December, a perfect Christmas present for the men and women who were willing to potentially give up their limbs or life for American interests and national defense.

Despite the positive intentions of the bill, the chances are good that you’ll also see a belabored debate about the exemptions in local school districts. Most school boards have already discussed them in detail, likely a little in public and a lot more behind closed doors — and they still don’t have any answers.

In order to meet the parameters of the new state law, school boards would have had to approve local exemptions by this past Saturday to make them available for the 2014-2015 budget year. Only a handful of districts across the state have done that. Most opted instead to delay the decision to a later date.

As simple as one might first think it is to grant the tax breaks (who wouldn’t support a vet?), it’s not. The boards are finding it difficult to balance altruism with fiscal planning, especially since the burden of making up for the lost revenues falls onto the communities, not onto the state as is the case with the long-lived STAR program.

In some cases, it’s not chump change that we’re talking about. Take the Wellsville School District, for example. They have nearly 400 veterans living in the district who would receive some sort of exemption (the state law has 3 levels of breaks). Those exemptions would account for $2.3 million in displaced revenue, which would have to be collected from other Wellsville property owners. With a total budget a smidge over $27 million, those other owners would be looking at an 8.5 percent increase in their property tax bill just to accommodate the veterans’ exemptions — and there would still be the annual, overall spending increase to account for, too!

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