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LI school districts OK Cold War veterans tax breaks

U.S. Army veteran Andre Williams Sr., 56, shown

U.S. Army veteran Andre Williams Sr., 56, shown at his Hempstead home on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, served as a field artillery crewman in active and reserve duty from 1980 to 1986. Credit: Steve Pfost

Dozens of Long Island school districts are approving tax breaks for veterans of the Cold War — defined by state law as those who served after World War II until the end of 1991 — who were not covered under a veterans’ exemption that generated local opposition in 2014.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation in August allowing school districts to approve property tax breaks of up to 15 percent for such veterans. The law applies to those who served during periods that were not part of previously defined conflicts, starting from Sept. 2, 1945, the date Japan formally surrendered to the Allies, through Dec. 26, 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved.

Veterans of World War II and conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf already qualify for tax breaks under the state’s Alternative Veterans Exemption, passed in December 2013.

The Alternative Veterans Exemption initially had difficulty passing muster with local school boards, largely because of worries about shifting more of a tax burden to other property owners. Now, 95 of Long Island’s 124 school districts have opted into the program, with 74,924 veterans in the region getting the tax relief, records from the state Department of Taxation and Finance show.

More than 50 school districts on the Island already have approved the Cold War Veterans’ Exemption, according to data from the Nassau County tax assessor’s office and from Suffolk County towns — the jurisdictions that are responsible for calculating property tax assessments.

School officials have largely supported the new measure, saying it is an issue of equity among veterans’ groups.

“It’s only out of fairness to do it for the one group that’s been excluded,” said Charles Russo, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association and superintendent of the East Moriches district.

The New York State School Boards Association and some taxpayer advocates, however, said the state should supply enough aid to make up for funding lost to the exemptions. A consequence, for example, is that municipalities that grant the tax exemptions either can collect less revenue or shift the burden onto other taxpayers, including commercial properties, in order to maintain the same level of funding.

“We’re not in a position to lose a dime,” said Mary Jones, superintendent of the Wyandanch school district, where the Milton L. Olive Middle School was listed as “struggling” under the 2015 state receivership law and must earn a “demonstrable improvement” designation in the 2017-18 school year or risk losing control of the school to a state-appointed operator.

‘Gut-wrenching position’

David Albert, director of communications, research and marketing for the state School Boards Association, said veterans’ exemptions place school administrators and residents in a “gut-wrenching position.”

“Nobody wants their taxes raised, but everybody recognizes the services that vets provide our country,” Albert said. “They put school boards in a very difficult position, because most if not all school boards want to honor the service of veterans.”

Districts that approve the exemptions, he said, face the prospect of increasing property taxes for others or further tightening their budgets, which already are constrained by the state-imposed property tax cap.

Andre Williams Sr., 56, of Hempstead, who served as a U.S. Army field artillery crewman in active and reserve duty from 1980 to 1986, urged the Hempstead school board to approve the exemption during a November board of education meeting.

“It’s a major step. A lot of Cold War veterans put their time in for this country,” Williams said in a recent interview. He was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Fort Hood, Texas, and Amberg, Germany, during an 18-month tour of duty.

In Hempstead, where both the high school and the middle school are under the state’s receivership program because of low academic performance, the school board approved a 15 percent exemption for Cold War veterans. In doing so, the district “acknowledged that even though they have to deal with a budget to educate children, they still recognize Cold War veterans as being part of society,” Williams said.

The board’s action on Nov. 17 came after discussions in an executive session.

“We made that decision understanding that our district is challenged financially,” trustee Melissa Figueroa said. “It was still important to us, at the end of the day, to make sure we show our veterans are a priority.”

Extended to school taxes

The Alternative Veterans Exemption was passed in 1984 and was available first from the counties’ and towns’ tax authorities before the 2013 law extended it to school taxes.

The state Cold War veterans’ exemption for counties and towns passed in 2007. Currently, 6,156 Long Island residents receive the exemptions on their town and city taxes. Hempstead Town has 1,465 Cold War veterans, followed by Brookhaven Town, with 1,370, according to 2016 assessment figures provided by the state Department of Taxation and Finance.

Extending the exemption to school districts is more consequential because school taxes make up almost 70 percent of Long Island property owners’ tax bill.

Andrea Vecchio, a founder of an East Islip Tax Pac taxpayer group, said, “The problem is the taxes are too high, and we have to bring them down for everybody. If everybody gets an exemption, it just gets to the point where it’s not working very well.”

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said in an email, “The program, as proposed by the legislative sponsors, gives local districts the option to honor veterans for their service through property tax credits. It was specifically designed to not be an unfunded mandate.”

The Bethpage district will ask voters to consider adding several tax exemptions through “nonbinding advisory propositions” on the ballot May 16, when residents decide on the annual school budget. Those include the Alternative Veterans Exemption, the Cold War Veterans’ Exemption and exemptions for firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

The matter was discussed at November board meetings, after which the trustees decided to put the exemptions up for the advisory votes.

Bethpage Superintendent Terry Clark, in a statement, said, “As always, the Bethpage school district appreciates the service and sacrifice of our firefighters, EMT workers and veterans, and the board will carefully consider the results of the referendum in May in making its determination regarding the exemptions.”

Clark declined an interview request, and a district spokeswoman did not make other board members available for interviews.

Pushed for recognition

Veterans of the Cold War era have long pressured the federal government to provide them with recognitions that have gone to veterans of wars and conflicts.

“We had a firm enough military, and a dedicated military to prevent any further occupation of Europe,” said Albert J. Lepine, past president of the American Cold War Veterans, a Maine-based nonprofit with offices across the United States. The resident of Auburn, Maine, spent 25 years in the Army, including 11 years in Germany.

Lepine said his group also is urging the federal government to award medals to Cold War veterans.

“We were there, and we were committed to keeping the borders the way they were and preventing the spread of communism,” he said. “These people didn’t get the recognition they deserved.”

Keith Logan, 59, of Babylon, who served in Idaho from 1976 to 1979 as a precision measurement equipment specialist with the U.S. Air Force’s Tactical Air Command, said his years there “straightened my life out.” He said he believes the recognition could inspire other young adults to serve.

The tax relief, he said, shows “that even during points when we weren’t under conflict, they’re [veterans] still recognized and taken care of by the country, even if it’s a simple thing as a tax credit.”

J. Philip Perna, superintendent of the Montauk school district, said it is unlikely his district would pass either of the veterans’ exemptions.

“We just have not passed them,” Perna said. “If you give an exemption for that, everybody else picks up the tab . . . It puts the burdens on the rest of the taxpayers.”

“They deserve it,” Perna acknowledged. “I don’t mind paying a little extra.”

Other Long Island schools chiefs view approving the veterans’ tax relief as an appropriate balancing of the ledger.

“There is always the concern [that] you take from one group and others are going to be compensating for it,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district. “We believe these people have given quite a bit for the country, and it’s worth an investment.”


Cold War Veterans’ Exemption

  • Eligible are veterans who served from Sept. 2, 1945, the date Japan formally surrendered to the Allies, through Dec. 26, 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved, during periods that were not part of previously defined conflicts.
  • Allows veterans a maximum 15 percent reduction on the assessed value of their homes in calculating their property taxes.
  • Applicable under state law as of August 2016.
  • More than 50 school boards on Long Island have approved this exemption. On the Island, 6,156 Cold War veterans already receive the exemption on their town and city taxes.

Alternative Veterans Exemption

  • Eligible are veterans who served in:

World War II (Dec. 7, 1941 — Dec. 31, 1946)

Vietnam (Feb. 28, 1961 — May 7, 1975)

Korea (June 27, 1950 — Jan. 31, 1955)

Persian Gulf conflict (Aug. 2, 1990 — present)

Some other veterans, such as those who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, also may qualify.

  • Allows veterans a 15 percent reduction on the assessed value of their homes in calculating their property taxes, with an additional 10 percent reduction available in certain cases.
  • Available under state law since December 2013.
  • On Long Island, 74,924 veterans receive this exemption, which 95 school districts have approved.

Source: NYS Department of Taxation and Finance

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