Schenectady veterans call for adoption of school tax exemption

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Dozens of Schenectady veterans attended Wednesday’s city school board meeting to urge the board to adopt a tax exemption that benefits veterans who own homes in the city at the expense of other taxpayers.

The veterans, some of whom addressed the board directly in public comments, implored the school board to approve a tax exemption that would result in school tax savings of around $150 to $400 for certain veterans who own homes in the city.

“We all have some type of injury that we carry from the day we served until today, that is our burden,” Bob Serotta, commander of the local chapter of Disabled American Veterans and one of the chief organizers behind the push for the tax break, said at Wednesday’s meeting. “We are not looking for a lot, we are just looking for a little bit of a break, we paid our dues.”

However, the cost of the break for veterans would be shifted to the rest of the school district’s taxpayers.

While the school board discussed the idea of the tax break at the meeting – with board members expressing their support for veterans while also raising concerns about shifting taxes to other residents and noting the district’s shortfall in state funds – it tabled a decision until later this month.

Some of the board members also cited the district’s streak of lowering taxes or keeping them flat in recent years and questioned whether people would view the tax shift as a break from that trend.

“People aren’t going to be looking at what they did for our veterans, they are going to be looking at, ‘There they go again raising our taxes,’” Board President John Foley said at the meeting.

The veterans are asking the school board to approve the Alternative Veterans Exemption which, under a state law passed in 2013, gives local school districts the discretion to adopt an exemption that brings down the taxable home assessment for wartime, combat and disabled military veterans. Many local school officials have resented how the law has played out as school boards are put in the difficult position of choosing to grant veterans a tax break at the cost of other constituents – or rejecting the pleas of veterans seeking relief.

Serotta, working with local tax authorities and other veterans who have sought the exemption in area districts, estimated that the tax shift to other taxpayers in the city would result in an increase of about $10-$12 a year for a home assessed at $100,000.

Serotta, enlisted in the Army in 1965 shortly after graduating from Linton High School in Schenectady, estimated about 1,100 veterans living in the city would benefit from the exemption.

“It’s a shift and we realize this is a shift,” Serotta said at the board meeting. “You give the veterans a break, someone else has to pick that up and it’s going to be non-veterans.”

If school districts adopt the tax exemption, they can do so at one of three levels, determining just how large of a break veterans will get. Serotta said the Schenectady veterans were asking the board to adopt the minimum exemption.

While school district officials didn’t have their own calculations about the impact of the tax exemption on both veterans and non-veterans to share with the board during Wednesday’s meeting, they suggested Serotta’s estimates were not far off.

In Schenectady County, Scotia-Glenville, Niskayuna and Mohonasen have all adopted the veterans tax exemptions, while Schalmont and Dunaesburg have resisted the calls of local veterans to follow suit.

Statewide around 45 percent of school districts have adopted the tax exemption for veterans, according to a count compiled by the New York State School Boards Association.

Speaking on Friday, veterans who live in the district said the tax relief can go a long way for veterans who are disabled and living off of their military and social security benefits. The benefit would also serve as a symbol of the community’s appreciation for their service.

Bill Jaffe, who served in the Navy 1995-1998 and broke his neck during his service, said the money isn’t enough to change a life but would go to helping with day-to-day needs and an occasional night out.

“It helps for medication; it helps for transportation,” he said. “It even helps to take the wife out once or twice every six months to socialize.”

Bob Brandt, a Schenectady homeowner who joined the Air Force in 1975, said he was pressing for the tax relief on behalf of other veterans in the community who would see a greater benefit from the savings. He and other veterans said a $12 increase in a year’s tax bill is a small price to pay as a sign of support of the burden military veterans carried on behalf of the nation.

“For anyone who goes into the service there is that chance they will give their life,” he said.

Board members on Wednesday appeared torn over the request from veterans. On the one hand, board members lauded the service of veterans and highlighted personal connections they have to people who have served.

On the other hand, the board members publicly wrestled with the challenge of asking any residents in the city to endure an increase to their school taxes. They also pointed to a long list of student needs the district works to address despite not receiving the level of state funding the state’s own formula says they should get. Board member Katherine Stephens said she also worried that some veterans in the community who don’t own homes would also be negatively impacted by a tax shift.

Since the board would need to act before March 1 for veterans to benefit from the tax exemption this year, board members said they would bring the issue up again during the Feb. 26 meeting.

Serotta, who has served on the county legislature, said he empathized with school board members and recognizes that local governments never have enough money to do everything they want. But he also boiled the debate down to a single overriding question.

“We had to work within our means and meet the needs of our community, that’s what districts have to do also,” Serotta said. “Are they going to honor the veterans?”

Published by The Daily Gazette

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