Veterans make their case on BKW taxes

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

“Glenn gave his maximum,” Edward Ackroyd said during a public hearing at Berne-Knox-Westerlo of alumnus Glenn Gilbert, who was killed in action in the Vietnam War. Gilbert’s sister, Patricia Wagoner, listens with her chin in her hand next to a plaque picturing her brother and commemorating local men killed in action. 

BERNE — School board members during their Feb. 24 meeting faced a plaque displaying a uniformed Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduate, Glenn Gilbert, who was killed in Vietnam.

Edward Ackroyd, a BKW graduate, Vietnam veteran, and classmate of Gilbert, set up a stand for the plaque in the high school auditorium for the board’s public hearing on the alternative veterans’ property tax exemption available to school districts for the first time this year. The board didn’t vote on the exemption.

The plaque commemorating local men killed in action lists nine names.

“I’ll trade anything in the world, my exemptions, to be healthy,” said Ackroyd, who said he was exposed to the chemical weapon Agent Orange, causing him a heart attack, cancer, and health risks for his children and grandchildren.

Each public school district in New York now has the option to adopt the tax exemption, which lowers a recipient’s property value used to calculate tax bills. The school’s overall tax levy would remain the same, so non-veteran property owners would make up for the decrease in revenue.

The board’s vice president, Vasilios Lefkaditis, asked Interim Superintendent Lonnie Palmer to return to the March 10 meeting with updated figures for the number of veterans who have applied for the exemption in BKW’s district.

Veterans have until March 1 to apply for the exemption for September 2014 school tax bills. Geoffrey Gloak, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance, said his department recommends schools opt-in to the exemption by March 1 but didn’t give a deadline.

Gilbert’s sister, Patricia Wagoner, asked the board to adopt the exemption for this year. The board also has the option of authorizing the exemption for Gold Star Parents, like Gilbert’s mother, Margaret Gilbert, who dresses in white every Memorial Day.

“It would be nice if this would take place, or if she knew about it before she goes and sees my brother again,” Wagoner said of her elderly mother. She said her mother has Parkinson’s disease and a fixed income. She owns a lot of farmland that is no longer productive, but still taxed.

Wagoner told the audience of about 50 people the story of her brother’s service. She called him her best friend and recalled how he protected her once from boy wanting a kiss and took her to get her first legal drink.

Gilbert worked on his family’s farm after high school, Wagoner said, before he was drafted. He trained to work in a tank, but ended up in the infantry in Vietnam. His leg was injured by the sharpened sticks of a booby trap, she said, but “that wasn’t bad enough that he could come home.”

Gilbert was caught in the undertow of a river and drowned as he was retrieving supplies dropped by a plane.

“My brother gave his life, his ultimate sacrifice for our country, so you guys can sit here and make decisions about how much we pay on our taxes,” said Wagoner.

BKW’s Interim Business Official Mark Kellett made a presentation to the school board on the potential impact of the exemption at its maximum rate in early February. By then, he said, 299 veterans had applied for the exemption.

He calculated that non-veteran properties would have their assessed values increase by about 1.6 percent, which does not factor into the state-set tax cap that limits levy increases each year. Using the 2013-14 tax year as an example, this means the rate per $1,000 increase for non-veterans would be of 49 cents in Berne, 53 cents in Knox, 33 cents in New Scotland, 53 cents in Rensselaerville, $32.30 in Westerlo, 47 cents in Middleburgh, and 39 cents in Wright.

In New Scotland, which has a 100 percent equalization rate, a home assessed at $200,000 would therefore have seen an increase of $66 last September.

“Whether you never left Fort Dix or Parris Island, you gave up your life, your time with your family, your time with your job — you put your future on hold,” said Helen Lounsbury, a former BKW teacher and former school board member. “I think this is the right thing to do and I hope the board will not wait and see what other school districts do.”

Clinton “Jack” Milner, a Westerlo beef farmer and Marine Corps Veteran, encouraged the board at Monday’s public hearing to adopt the exemption.

He said he owns a 10-acre woodlot that helps him afford school taxes. “Kids don’t go to school from land, they go to school from a house,” said Milner.

An American Legion Rider and Veterans of Foreign Wars commander, Dennis Cyr, said veterans don’t stop serving as volunteers, as firefighters or fund-raisers, after they leave the military.

Veterans who have already applied for the alternative veterans’ exemption don’t need to reapply to get a school’s exemption. It is already used by towns, cities, villages, and counties.

Eligible veterans can get the assessed value of their primary residences reduced by 15 percent, up to a maximum dollar amount. For veterans serving in combat zones, including recipients of expeditionary medals, an additoinal 10 percent can be reduced. Further reductions can be made for veterans who have been disabled in service, equal to one-half of their disability ratings.

The percentages are subject to maximum dollar amounts, ranges for which each school district can decide. Kellett said the 1.62 percent projection used the maximum range.

“I would in all honesty recommend going to the maximum, get it done, get it over with,” Ackroyd told the board. “Glenn gave his maximum. You got mine already. We’re not asking for that much.”

At the beginning of the hearing, Palmer noted many school boards across the state have delayed making a decision and BKW’s attorneys have said the district isn’t obligated to act on the exemption. He said a partial implementation of the exemption over a period of years may be possible.

The New York State School Boards Association announced the same day that 69 percent of school board members in an informal poll statewide oppose adopting the veterans’ tax exemption. Ten percent were unsure and 21 percent were in favor.

NYSSBA’s executive director, Timothy G. Kremer, said school boards support veterans but believe the state should cover the difference made in levies by the exemption instead of non-veterans in each district.

“My concern is that we have a big potential program change this year and this is a complicated budget as it is, because of that,” Palmer, a veteran, told The Enterprise last week, when asked whether the exemption concerns him for the budget’s passage in May. Palmer, then a science teacher, was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War and served in a research lab in Maryland.

 Palmer went on, “And I worry about stirring things up with this side issue at this point, given the complexity of the other issues we have to deal with. That’s aside from the issue of ‘Is it fair?’”

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