Board holds on veterans’ tax exemption vote after hearing

The Greater Amsterdam School District Board of Education held a public hearing on the Alternative Veterans’ Tax Exemption prior to Wednesday’s regular meeting but did not vote on the exemption as had been previously discussed.

Board President Kent McHeard explained that Wednesday’s public hearing would be the final hearing before the board voted on a resolution on the exemption and that he had asked that the resolution be held for a future meeting.

McHeard reasoned that he wanted the board to have the opportunity to hear additional opinions on the exemption while considering the expense that it would place on non-veterans.

He said, “I can only speak for myself, and not the Board of Education, but as an individual. I support our veterans. One of the areas I struggle with is those who will be paying for the exemption of the veterans and, expressly, seniors that will need to pay.”

McHeard was also concerned that, although it is possible for the school board to extend the exemption to parents who lost a child in the military, it cannot be extended to the widows of veterans.

The exemption is broken into three tiers based on service. If the board passed the exemption, veterans who served during wartime would be eligible for a 15 percent reduction in the full assessed value of their parcel up to a maximum of $12,000. The board could increase or decrease the maximum by increments of $3,000 to as much as $36,000 and to as low as $6,000.

Veterans who served in combat would be eligible for an additional 10 percent reduction for a total 25 percent reduction in the full assessed value of their parcel with an additional maximum of $8,000. The additional maximum at this level can be increased or decreased by increments of $2,000 to as high as $24,000 and to as low as $4,000.

Veterans that sustained service related disabilities are also eligible for a percentage exemption equal to one half of their military disability rating for up to a $40,000 reduction. This can be increased or decreased by increments of $10,000 to as high as $120,000 and to as low as $20,000.

If the school board adopted the exemption at the initial levels, it would result in an average savings of $245 a year for veterans who served in wartime and an average of $425 a year for those who served in combat. The savings for those who sustained a disability would have to be calculated on an individual basis.

At these levels, the reductions would come to a total of $367,182. This amount would have to be absorbed by the non-veteran taxpayers in the district, who account for 90 percent of the taxable land parcels. This would result in an estimated increase of $37 per year for a resident with a parcel of land with a $100,000 taxable assessed property value.

Both the City and Town of Amsterdam offer the tax exemption with the reductions set at a maximum of $12,000 for wartime service, $20,000 for combat service, and $40,000 for disability.

Vietnam War veteran Richard Splawnik addressed the board, saying that, while he understood that the board was concerned about the cost to non-veterans, he feels the cost is small. He said, “I disagree with you. I think it’s kind of minute really.”

Splawnik urged the board to consider the sacrifices of the veterans in making a decision on the exemption. He explained that he had served for 15 months in Vietnam and had spent several months in a Veterans Affairs hospital upon his return in 1969, recovering from a wound, malaria, and exposure to Agent Orange.

He questioned whether any of the board members had visited a VA hospital and seen the sacrifices that the veterans had made. He then pointed out that when the school district increases the budget, residents share the burden to fund that increase through higher taxes and suggested that residents should be willing to share the burden to fund the exemption.

Splawnik said, “Why can’t some of the people share the burden with the little minute amount that the veterans would get? I think that’s something the board should really consider. You know, we were there when our country needed us.”

McHeard responded that he had requested that the board refrain from voting on the exemption that night out of concern that the board might vote in favor of the exemption only as a sign of support for the veterans, without weighing all possible considerations.

He explained, “If you are not one who would vote for…or leaning towards not voting for…the exemption, it does not mean that you are not patriotic, nor does it mean that you do not support the veterans. What it does mean is that you are trying to consider all the facts. And so, when you hear that I myself am thinking of not supporting this exemption, it is not–it is absolutely not–because I do not support our veterans.”

“It is certainly not because I don’t know the sacrifice,” he added. “Have I been to the VA? Absolutely. absolutely, I’ve been there, but it doesn’t mean that just because I’ve been there and I’ve seen what has happened that I might as well say, ‘okay’ regardless of what I’m going to vote for. I’m contingent upon listening to all of the views. So, I would just guard us from suggesting, perhaps, that those who do not support are not supporting veterans.”

Of further concern to the board is the order in which exemptions are applied by the state. In instances when exemptions are offered by both state and local governments, the local exemption is applied first. Many veterans in the GASD are eligible for the basic or enhanced School Tax Relief exemption. If the board adopts the veterans’ exemption, it would be applied before the STAR exemption.

The STAR exemption covers the entire cost of school taxes for some local veterans. With the veterans’ exemption in place, the school taxes for these veterans would still be covered, but local taxpayers would pick up the portion covered by the veterans’ exemption with the state paying the remaining balance. This means that the state would save money while local taxpayers paid more.

Gavin Murdoch, Vice President of the board, summarized, “You don’t gain anything on it, but what happens is the burden comes back on city taxpayers.”

Splawnik responded, “I totally understand that, but didn’t the burden when we originally went and we left to go into a war zone…didn’t the burden fall on us?”

The GASD Board of Education held the first public hearing on the veterans’ exemption in December 2014 and has not yet considered a resolution on it. If the board adopts the exemption at any point this year, it would not take effect until the 2017-18 school year. Splawnik said that the board’s inaction was unfair considering that other local school districts had voted on and approved the exemption in time for the 2015-16 school year. He added that, after personally attending four meetings on the exemption, he felt that nothing had been accomplished.

As the public hearing ended, Murdoch asked that the board hear a resolution on the exemption at next month’s regular meeting in order to settle the matter through an “up or down” vote. He reasoned that the board has received and reviewed all of the information on the exemption and has asked all of the necessary questions to make a decision on the matter. McHeard said that he had no problem with casting his own vote a that time and, after no other board members objected, said that they would vote at next month’s meeting.

Ashley Onyon

Ashley Onyon is a graduate of the journalism program at SUNY Albany. She has contributed articles to The Mohawk Valley Independent and the annual journal Upstream.