Among the defining elements of Long Island culture are two powerful impulses: the urge to do right by our veterans and the desire to reduce tax bills that simply are too high. Those forces are pitted against each other in an ongoing debate within school districts about whether to grant property tax exemptions to veterans. It's a difficult topic because granting the benefit to veterans means hiking taxes for nonveterans to compensate.
School boards would be wise to take time to solicit feedback from as many residents as possible before deciding.
A new state law signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in December allows school districts to grant the exemptions, which veterans already receive on municipal taxes. The benefits include a basic 15 percent reduction in assessed value for those who served during a time of war, an additional 10 percent for veterans who were in combat zones, and further reductions for service-related disabilities. Parents who lost a son or daughter serving in the military also could receive a reduction.
Nearly 70 percent of school board members statewide who responded to an informal poll opposed the exemption. But most districts that have voted -- including on Long Island -- have approved the benefit. Our concern, with the majority of districts yet to make a decision, is whether our understandable impulse to reward veterans is overtaking legitimate worries about even higher taxes.
A public hearing is required before a vote, but residents who oppose granting the exemption might find it hard to say so with veterans in the audience. A better way to gauge public sentiment would be to put a nonbinding referendum on the ballot on May 20, when districts hold budget and school board votes. If the April 21 deadline to add such an item is too rushed and districts believe they won't be able to fully inform voters about the impact of the exemption, they should wait until next year.