BKW board hears mixed views on tax break for vets

The Enterprise — Tim Tulloch

Making a plea: Westerlo resident Betty Filkins reads her statement to the board, in which she said, “ The brave men and women who have worn our nation's uniform deserve to know that their country will take care of them when they return home and this includes our own school tax district. 

BERNE —  The impulse to honor veterans found two outlets during last week’s Berne-Knox-Westerlo board of education  meeting.

One expression was an affecting tribute to local men who fell in Vietnam, as reported in last week’s Enterprise.

The other, which followed,  was emotional and veteran-centered, too.  But dollars-and-cents issues also shaped  the discussion  as town residents gave  the board their opinions about a proposal to give district wartime veterans a bigger break on their property tax than they currently enjoy.

More than a dozen people spoke in favor of it. Perhaps six or eight people spoke against it or urged that only a small increase be made.

The board will decide in November whether to increase the exemption and, if it does vote to increase it, by how much.

Under New York State’s  Alternative Veterans’ Exemption legislation — which in 2013 was enlarged to cover school districts as well as municipalities —  a qualifying veteran who has served during wartime can deduct 15 percent from his or her property’s assessed value, up to a maximum dollar amount set by the school district. Service in a combat zone or a service-related disability can further increase the maximum percentage and deductible amount, substantially.

For veterans living in the BKW district, the maximum amount they can take off from their home’s assessed value for service during wartime, is set at $12,000, the third level up on an ascending  scale of 14 levels. Ed Ackroyd — a  Vietnam veteran and a former member of the BKW Board of Education — pushed for the board to adopt the exemption in the first place. He has since been a resolute advocate for  BKW moving to the highest possible level, which is $45,000. He spoke at the meeting, as did many other veterans.

Ackroyd says that all three district towns — Berne, Knox, and Westerlo — currently grant veterans the highest possible exemption on town taxes. School taxes are many times higher than town taxes.

The school district wrote to its taxpayers before the meeting  that  moving one step up — to the next higher maximum  of  $15,000 — would result in  “at least $747,788” of  assessed value being transferred “to the remaining tax base.” In other words, non-veteran taxpayers would have to pick up this additional tab — as they do now at the current lower level — in order for the total tax levy by the school district  to remain unchanged.

The state does not reimburse school districts for revenue lost to the exemption, though  a bill working its way through the state legislature would require the state to reimburse school districts that approve the veterans tax exemption.

One taxpayer had another idea:  The loss tax revenue could be offset by a reduction in the school budget rather than by imposing higher taxes on other residents.

BKW business manager Sarah Blood walked the crowd  through a  presentation showing the dollar  impact on non-veteran taxpayers if the district moved to the next higher maximum  and the impact if it moved all the way to  the highest possible.       

An individual taxpayer’s share for either, she explained, would depend upon  where  their property is located in the district — in Berne, Knox, or Westerlo, or smaller pieces of other towns.

If the district moved all the way up to the highest possible level, the resulting increase per $1,000  of assessed value would be 82 cents more in Berne and 85 cents more in Knox;  or  $123.60 more in annual school tax on a  $150,000 Berne home,  and $127.60 more for such a home in Knox, according to school district figures.

A big segment of last week’s audience came from Westerlo, most likely  because the school district communique sent to taxpayers in advance of the last week’s forum said Westerlo property owners “would see an increase of more than $2,000” due to Westerlo assessments remaining unchanged since 1950.  

Board president Matthew Tedeschi said he “understood their sticker shock.”  Tedeschi, Blood, and school district Superintendent Timothy Mundell strove to reassure worried Westerlo property owners by clarifying  that their tax bill would  increase, in fact,  by no more than $107.50  per year, even if the district went to the highest possible exemption level. They explained that the same formula must be applied to all towns.

According to the district, 333 properties — out of a total of 4,346 tax-paying parcels — “currently receive some form of alternative veterans’ tax exemption,” adding up to  a total $2,991,154 coming off the school tax base and needing to be made up by non-veterans.

Blood said if the district chooses to go to the maximum exemption of $45,000, an additional  $8,204,765 — for a total veterans-exemption value of $11,185, 919 — would  come off the tax base and would have to be be shifted from veterans to non-veterans, a transfer of 4 percent of the total assessment.

A range of opinions

One Westerlo resident, an elderly man, asked the board to “consider those who are paying. Please consider not raising the exemption to the maximum level.”

One younger veteran who walked with a cane, served in Iraq in 1999, and suffers continuing health problems, advocated for a larger exemption.

“We’re not going to have a party,” he said, with any tax savings. “We [he and his wife] will use it to get better health care.”

Robert Nevins, a a 1968 BKW graduate and a Vietnam veteran, said,  “The 99 percent of Americans who don’t serve owe a lot to the one percent who do.”  Nevins is the co-founder of  Saratoga War Horse, a suicide prevention program for soldiers returning from war zones. The program forms therapeutic connections between  soldiers and horses  on a Saratoga horse farm.

“Just because the war ends, doesn’t mean the war is over for you. The impact can be lifelong,” he told the gathering in arguing for a more generous exemption for local vets.

On the other side of the issue, one resident said, “No one can argue that vets don’t deserve rewards, but why can’t there be another way to help them? Lots of people are on fixed incomes and can’t afford any tax increase.”

“We’re not talking about a great amount of money here,”countered one resident.  “It’s the right thing to do.”

Said another, “A lot of these guys [veterans] are too proud to ask for help. And remember that a lot of them when they come out of the service don’t stop volunteering.”

“It’s time for the community to pay us back,” said one veteran.

Urged Westerlo resident Betty Filkins, “Take a look at your neighbors who are veterans.  First tell them thank you.  Now in your heart see that it’s your turn to be patriotic and help them out by giving them a tax break.”

Another speaker, however, who said he was on fixed income, said, “You people are voting an increase in my taxes. It’s just another tax increase.”  

“The tax  burden goes away as our veterans pass away,” one person said. But Anthony Sherman, a member of the Westerlo Town Board, cautioned that men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may swell the ranks of eligible veterans in future years.

If graduates return to their hometowns, as many in the Hilltowns do,  BKW’s high percentage of graduates entering the military —12 percent of graduates in 2015 as opposed to less than 1 percent of graduates from Guilderland High school— could place an added burden on the sparsely-populated, business-poor district.

Tedeschi urged the crowd to write to their state legislators in support of the bill that would remove any burden from taxpayers by having the state fund veteran exemptions.

But before any such bill is passed, the BKW board must make its own decision.

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