Medina schools leaning towards tax exemption for veterans

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 14 January 2015 at 12:00 am

District eyes offering the minimum tax break

Photos by Tom Rivers – Carl Boyle of Lyndonville tells Medina Central School Superintendent Jeff Evoy (in back) that the district should support a tax exemption for veterans. Boyle served during the Cold War and he said the tax exemption doesn’t include Cold War veterans.

MEDINA – The Board of Education hasn’t made a final decision, but the group is leaning towards offering about 500 veterans in the school district a discount in their school taxes, a move that will cause a tax increase for nonveterans.

“It’s a difficult decision in light of the economy and the poverty in our county, and in light of the debt we owe our veterans,” said Chris Keller, president of the Medina BOE.

The Board of Education discussed offering the exemption to veterans during Tuesday’s board meeting. Board members said they don’t want to put undue financial stress on nonveterans.

With that in mind, the board is considering offering the minimum tax exemption to veterans. If it approved, nonveterans would pay $32 more in taxes for a property assessed at $100,000, school superintendent Jeff Evoy said.

Veterans who served in wartime (World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, and Persian Gulf Conflict since Aug. 2, 1990) would get $6,000 off their assessments. That would save eligible veterans about $140 each. (The district’s tax rate is $23.31 per $1,000 of assessed property. Multiply $23.31 by 6 to determine the dollars saved through the exemption.)

The state in December 2013 voted to allow school districts the option of giving the exemption. The county, all 10 towns and three villages already had been offering it to veterans. (Only the Village of Albion doesn’t, according to the county Office of Real Property Tax Services. Updated 10:30 a.m.: The Village of Albion offers the exemption to veterans in World War I, WWII, and the Korean War.)

Board of Education President Chris Keller said the district wants to offer the exemption for veterans, but school officials don’t want to shift too much tax burden on other residents.

Medina is the first school district in the county to take up the issue. Veterans in November approached the Board, asking the district to implement the exemptions.

“It’s not an easy issue, no question about it,” said resident David Barhite. “But we wouldn’t be here without our veterans.”

Barhite said veterans deserve the tax discount. Many of them sacrificed pay and benefits from their jobs to be in the military, he said.

In addition to the $6,000 wartime exemption, veterans who were in a combat zone could have their taxable assessed values dropped by another $4,000. That would save another $93.24.

Veterans who are disabled from their military service could get $20,000 off their assessments, which would save them $466.20, based on the district’s current tax rate.

The state law allows districts to offer double what Medina is considering. The maximum exemption would be $12,000 off for wartime service, $8,000 for combat duty and $40,000 for being disabled.

If Medina offered the maximum exemptions, nonveterans would see their taxes go up $51 for properties assessed at $100,000, according to school officials.

Dave Kusmierczak said veterans could use the exemption, but he would prefer it to be offered through state income taxes and not property taxes.

Maureen Blackburn, former BOE president, said the community has many struggling young families, where $30 to $50 more in taxes is a big deal.

“That might be snow boots,” she said.

Blackburn said she holds veterans “in the highest regard,” but the district needs to consider the impact and tax burden on younger families, who live in a much different and more difficult economy these days. Many of the families are working double jobs and still not making ends meet, Blackburn said.

“I would like our young families to have a place at the table when you’re considering your decision,” she said.

Nelda Toussaint also spoke against the exemption, saying it wasn’t fair to other residents who would see a shift in their taxes. Another resident, Tim Elliott, said he thinks many residents are struggling to get by, and the added taxes would be difficult for them to pay.

The New York State School Boards Association opposes the “alternative veterans exemption” because it would require other local taxpayers to make up the difference. The association would prefer to see the state provide the exemption through state income taxes.

“The law as is presents school boards with a dilemma,” NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer said in a statement last February. “If they adopt the exemption, that would increase taxes for other taxpayers in their district. If they do not adopt the exemption, they could be viewed as not being supportive of veterans.”

Local veteran Dave Kusmierczak said veterans could use a break in their taxes. The exemption through property taxes not only shifts some of the tax load to nonveterans, but it also excludes many veterans, Kusmierczak said. If they don’t own property, they won’t get an exemption. He would like to see the benefit offered through income taxes so more veterans would be able to use it.

Carl Boyle served in the Cold War, but the state doesn’t include that as wartime service. He said the proposal discriminates against veterans in the Cold War.

Carl Boyle served overseas in Germany during the Cold War. He isn’t eligible for the wartime exemption because Cold War veterans weren’t included.

Boyle said he slept for months outside in the cold during his service, and tensions were high with the Russians.

“It was a war of nerves,” Boyle told the Board of Education. “It took a toll on me and several other thousand Cold War veterans. The Cold War vet is being crapped on. That isn’t fair. That’s discrimination.”

Medina has 217 veterans eligible for the wartime exemption and 260 more eligible for service in a combat zone. Of those two groups, 95 are rated as disabled.

BOE President Chris Keller took a poll of board members on Tuesday, to see where they stand at this point. Several said they were in favor of offering the minimum exemption. But the board wants more time to consider the issue and weigh the impacts.

Offering the exemption would also reduce the district’s STAR funds from the state by $4,524, with nonveterans to make up that difference, Evoy said.

The district will have another public hearing at 6 p.m. on Feb. 10 for the minimum exemption levels. The board could vote on the issue at that meeting. In order for the exemption to apply to the 2015-16 school taxes, the board needs to adopt the exemption by March 1.

BOE member John McCarthy said the district is in a difficult position. He said the state allowed the exemption, but passed the decision making and impact to the local level.

“It will pit neighbor versus neighbor, and school district versus school district,” McCarthy said.