Chatham rejects tax break for vets, citing tax shift

CHATHAM–The school board voted last week not to adopt the alternative veterans tax exemption, a property tax reduction for certain wartime veterans. The board was also presented with the calculated property tax cap for the 2015-16 school year.

The veterans exemption allows school districts to offer wartime veterans to request a reduction of 15% on the assessed value of their property. Combat zone veterans could request an additional 10% exemption. And veterans with service-related disabilities could request an even greater additional exemption. The state already authorizes towns and counties to offer the exemption and recently amended the law so that, beginning last year, school districts could choose to offer the tax break.

Local officials say 425 veterans living in the Chatham Central School district would be eligible for these exemptions.

This question of whether the district should offer the exemption has been the subject of much debate in recent weeks, with concern raised because the state does not reimburse school districts for the lost revenue, which would place an additional cost on non-veteran taxpayers.

In order for the tax exemption to be effective for the 2015-2016 year, schools had to make a decision by March 1. Four other districts in the county, Germantown, Hudson, Ichabod Crane and Taconic Hills, have adopted exemption programs.

At the February 24 board meeting, the Chatham Board of Education voted 6 to 1 not to adopt the tax exemption. Board members Michael Clark and Muriel Faxon were not present.

The resolution stated that the board “recognizes the importance of assisting the community’s military veterans, who deserve our utmost respect and admiration for their service to our country,” but added that the board is also “aware of the financial burden school taxes may place on all taxpayers of the district.”

The board held a public hearing on the matter January 13, when veterans and district residents packed the high school library and dominated the hearing with statements in support of the exemptions. On January 27, the board discussed the issue at length, with members coming to agreement that they were not comfortable with shifting a tax burden to other taxpayers.

Board member Chris Kelly, a veteran, was the lone dissenting vote last week. He offered a motion to amend the resolution to approve the adoption of the exemption. He said he the additional tax burden on non-veteran taxpayers would not be “nearly as dramatic” as some feared. “The public has spoken and has overwhelmingly stated that they would like to see the veterans tax exemption approved,” he said. But his motion did not receive a second.

Board President Melony Spock said the board is responsible for all taxpayers. “I don’t think it’s fair to shift a portion of the tax dollars from one group to another,” she said.

Board member and veteran David O’Connor said the exemption would not benefit all veterans, just those who own property. “Let’s not forget the young struggling family who has to rent; they won’t benefit from this,” he said. “The government doesn’t do enough to help vets who are struggling, but most of us who own property are not struggling.”

Board member Craig Simmons said the topic can always be revisited in the future.

During public comment prior to the vote, veteran Bob Cramer pleaded with the board to reconsider its resolution, which he said made him “a little offended.”

Gary Flaherty, director of Columbia County Veterans Services, said the exemption was a matter of principle. He said two veterans with children in district schools had called him since the last meeting to say they were planning to leave the district.

Mr. Flaherty, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said his mission is to look out for the younger veterans who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “We made a commitment after the way we were treated when we came home from Vietnam that we would never let another generation be treated like we were,” he said.

After the vote Mr. Flaherty and other veterans left, visibly upset. “You people should be ashamed of yourselves,” one man said to the board.

Also at the February 24 meeting, district business administrator Michael Chudy presented the estimated property tax cap for the 2015-16 budget. The tax levy limit is $21,234,438, or 2.02%. If the board proposes a tax levy increase of 2.02% or lower, voter approval of the spending plan will require only a simple majority. If the proposed tax levy increase exceeds 2.02%, passage requires a supermajority of over 60%.

Though commonly called a “two-percent tax cap,” the calculation uses a complex, eight-step formula outlined by the state. Mr. Chudy said his figure is a draft and subject to change based the state budget, which is supposed to be adopted by the end of this month.

In other business last week:

  • The seat recently vacated by James Marks was filled by a familiar face. David O’Connor, who served on the board from 2007 to 2013, was appointed to serve until May 19 of this year, when the position will be up for election. Mr. Marks resigned in January
  • Mr. Chudy presented draft district budget figures for administration and support. He will present the drafts of other budget categories at coming meetings. The draft budget numbers for administration and support come to $3,510,785, a decrease of more than $6,000 from last year. Mr. Chudy attributed the decrease to a rebate the district will receive from BOCES
  • Steven Nieto, superintendent of buildings and grounds, said the district’s draft operations and maintenance budget would see a 0.1% increase due to contract savings and energy cost reductions from solar panels. Barbara Murray, Supervisor of Food Services said the cafeteria budget requests a 0.67% increase. She said the cafeteria staff is making some foods from scratch, which has saved money
  • Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo presented Board Achievement Awards from the state School Boards Association to Ms. Conte, Mr. Simmons, Mr. Kelly, Jennifer Lindberg and Edward Knight. Ms. Spock received a Board Excellence Award
  • Social Studies teacher Mark Connelly and English Teacher Cecilia Hetterich proposed an 8th grade enrichment class that would combine English language arts and Common Core skills with a social studies curriculum, and would revolve around answering the question: How does war affect the individual and society?
  • A proposal was made for the Middle School Mentoring Program, which has paired volunteer mentors with student in need for 20 years. The funding, $1,000 per year, had been provided by the Chatham Education Foundation in the past, but the program would be funded by the district in the 2015-16 budget
  • Computer teacher James Flanagan proposed a course for developing and programming websites for mobile devices. He said the materials are already available and the course would have no impact to the budget.

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