EDITORIAL: Why approve veteran exemptions?

THERE ARE 4,910 VETERANS LIVING in Columbia County. They comprise 11% of the county’s population, more than double the rate statewide. Over the next few weeks school boards around the county will determine how much of a school tax break, if any, they will offer many of those veterans.

This is the first year that school districts could reduce the property tax burden of veterans. The option has been available for years to other levels of government–towns, counties, cities and villages–and many of those municipalities have adopted laws that lower the assessed value of property owned by qualified veterans who request the exemption. Those earlier decisions didn’t stir up much controversy, but this new tax break has some school officials questioning the practice.

The easy assumption is that anyone who’d deny veterans a little extra help is ungrateful, unpatriotic or stingy… or all three. By definition, veterans have rendered us a service without which the United States of America would not and could not exist. You don’t have to agree with the decisions of the nation’s civilian leaders, who determine the policies that put our military in harm’s way, to accept our lasting responsibility to care for and honor our veterans.

But by the same reasoning, citizens and their elected representatives have a duty to question whether existing laws are the best way to achieve these desirable goals. This questioning tests the merits of our laws and can lead to changes that make government more effective and more fair.

The issue with the school district veterans tax exemption plan is the magnitude of the tax shift from veterans to non-veterans. When the assessed value of a school district declines, as it would with exemptions for veterans, the tax rate for the other taxpayers in the district increases to make up the difference. The Ichabod Crane Central School District has put that into real numbers for its taxpayers. If all 611 veterans living in the district applied for and received the maximum rate reduction allowed under the law, the tax base would drop by as much as $49 million in assessed value.

The positive side of that equation shows that on average veterans in some towns in the district could save $1,600 or more a year on school taxes as the result of the exemptions. The downside is that non-veteran homeowners could get hit with an increase greater than $300 just to offset the impact of the exemptions.

Maybe this is one price we should pay for keeping society’s commitment our veterans. But is it the fairest approach? For instance, veterans living in less affluent school districts get less of a benefit than those who live in wealthier districts. Is that fair to veterans? Consider also the impact on non-veteran taxpayers who live in districts with low assessed values.

They’re also likely to have lower incomes and will feel a relatively bigger pinch when their taxes increase compared to the taxpayers in affluent districts. That doesn’t sound very fair.
The whole system of support for veterans has major flaws when it comes to fairness. Think of the rotten deal veterans got at some VA hospitals. National Public Radio is now airing a series on veterans and has revealed some startling disparities in services based on VA data. NPR figures show the average spending by the VA on veterans in Columbia County is more than $1,500 a year less than the state and national averages. Spending on county veterans who are medical patients is below the state average, too.

The system must be fixed. But the way to do it is not for state government to pass the burden down to school districts and other local governments. That’s a cynical trick that stirs up conflict among neighbors. It’s a distraction that allows the state to shirk its role in helping guarantee the fairest system possible for all veterans.

School boards should approve tax exemptions for veterans now. But they should also join the ICC school board in writing to state officials for funds to reimburse districts for the assessment declines caused by veteran exemptions. This is how the state handles the STAR exemption for senior citizen taxpayers.

School boards should also consider adopting their exemption resolutions only for a year with the option to renew them permanently in 2016. Next year there’s an election. Perhaps that will give schools, veterans and voters the political leverage to convince state office holders that we need a more equitable system to assist both veterans and the communities they call home.

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