BKW approves "basic" exemption for veterans

BERNE — A month after the school board heard pleas on behalf of a Gold Star mother and requests from a dozen veterans, the board adopted a tax exemption for veterans in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo district that officials say would increase property taxes for non-veterans by 0.58 to 0.88 percent.

The board chose the state’s default limit on the dollar amount of the exemption, known as the “basic” level among various options below and above. The law allows for Gold Star Parents, whose children died in war, to be eligible by local option, but the board did not mention the measure. Board member Gerald Larghe, a veteran, abstained.

“Without a vote, I can’t speak for the board, but I believe the board’s intent was to include Gold Star Parents, but it was probably an oversight,” Vasilios Lefkaditis, the board’s vice president, said on Wednesday. An agenda item for the April 7 school board meeting involves clarifying the board’s resolution on the exemption. The board’s president, Joan Adriance, was not available for comment.

The exemption would be applied to the 2014-15 fiscal year, for school property tax bills this coming fall, said Interim Superintendent Lonnie Palmer.

He said the exact impact on non-veterans will not be known until May, when town assessors will report on the distribution of veterans under each eligibility classification. An estimate of 0.58 percent is based on an assumption of equal distribution of each of the three classifications, Palmer said.

For the first time this year, school districts in New York have the option to adopt the alternative veterans’ exemption, which reduces the total amount of taxable property value by 15 percent for wartime veterans, an additional 10 percent for those with combat service, and up to an additional 50 percent for disabled veterans. The exemption is currently given by the surrounding towns and Albany County.

The maximum dollar amounts of those assessment reductions on the “basic” level are $12,000 for wartime, $20,000 for combat, and up to $40,000 for disabled veterans, based on half of a recipient’s disability rating. The board had the option of choosing exemption maximums for wartime service that ranged from $6,000 to $54,000. The maximum reductions for disability range from $20,000 to $180,000. The limits are multiplied by the latest equalization rate in each municipality to determine their actual amounts. Board members noted the district’s exemption could be adjusted in the future.

“We went with the basic exemption because we don’t know what the long-term costs are going to be at this point,” said Joan Adriance, the school board’s president, when Edward Ackroyd asked during the March 24 board meeting how the decision was made. Ackroyd is a former leader of Boyd Hilton Veterans’ of Foreign Wars Post 7062 in Altamont and a member of the Altamont American Legion. He attended BKW and served in the Vietnam War; he is also a former BKW School Board member.

Ackroyd said he disapproved of the exemption level chosen by the board. He displayed a veterans’ memorial plaque at a public hearing for the exemption in February and addressed the Knox Town Board on March 11 to ask that it raise the town’s exemption level from the minimum. He noted during the school board meeting that a disabled non-veteran may be eligible for a higher exemption than the one recently adopted by the board.

“How can you give a higher rating? If you’re disabled, you’re disabled,” Ackroyd said, referring to the exemption for people with disabilities. That exemption is available to veterans and non-veterans and subject to income limits.

Adriance read from a prepared statement before the board’s vote.

“We strongly support our veterans, but we believe that reimbursement for the exemption should be covered by the state rather than by local taxpayers,” she read, mirroring the position of the New York State School Boards Association, which released results from an impromptu poll in February that reported nearly 70 percent of school boards oppose the measure and 21 percent were in favor.

“I have no indication that politically that’s going to happen,” Palmer told The Enterprise, when asked whether he felt state tax dollars compensating the school district was likely.

Palmer has expressed concern that the skewed tax burden from veterans to non-veterans could affect the chances of passing next year’s school budget now being developed.

Because the tax-rate increase resulting from the exemption makes up for only the tax levy no longer paid by veteran property owners, the tax increase would be in addition to any changes from the budget voted on May. The board, however, has so far favored a budget with no levy increase.

“It transferred the decision-making down the ladder and put the board in a very difficult spot,” said Palmer, a United States Army veteran. A similar process is used for the exemption for any person with a disability, which allows local boards to set the income level under which a resident can qualify.

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