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Schenectady school board rejects veterans tax exemption in a rare split vote

Schenectady school board rejects veterans tax exemption in a rare split vote

Some board members raised concerns that veterans who rent rather than own in the district would be harmed
Schenectady school board rejects veterans tax exemption in a rare split vote
Bob Serotta of Niskayuna, the executive director of the local DAV chapter, addresses the Schenectady school board Wednesday.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SCHENECTADY -- The Schenectady school board on Wednesday night rejected a bid to approve a property tax exemption for certain military veterans living in the district in a rare 4-3 vote.

The exemption would have benefited property owners within the school district who served during wartime, giving enhanced benefits to combat and disabled veterans.

But some board members raised concerns that the exemption could actually harm veterans in the district who rent rather than own and are more likely to face financial strain than homeowners. In theory, landlords who see their property bill go up as a result of the new exemption would pass that increase on to renters.

Board President John Foley moved to table a decision on the tax exemption until the district could study in more detail how it would affect veterans who rent in the community, but other members rejected that motion. The board was under a March 1 deadline in order to grant the break in time for veterans to take advantage of it this year. Dozens of veterans turned out for the board’s Feb. 5 meeting, urging the board to adopt the tax break.

“People at the last meeting said do the right thing,” Foley said Wednesday. “I’m in a position saying do the right thing for which veterans? Because what helps one veteran may put another veteran at more severe risk.”

Board member Dharam Hitlall, who supported adoption of the exemption, said he was ready to make a decision on the underlying resolution to adopt the tax exemption.

“Civilians want to help our veterans, because they are the reason we are here,” he said. “To be honest with you, I don’t feel comfortable tabling.”

The board on Wednesday ultimately rejected the exemption on a split vote: board members Bernice Rivera, Dharam Hitlall and Cathy Lewis voted in favor of the tax break, while Foley and board members Ann Reilly, Andy Chestnut and Katherine Stephens voted against the tax exemption.

The exemption, which state lawmakers approved as an option for school districts in 2013, would lower the overall assessment of an eligible veteran’s property and lower their overall school tax bill – with savings estimated between $100 and $200 for homes assessed at $100,000. But the district’s tax levy, the total amount collected in local property taxes, would stay the same, shifting the amount of taxes saved by the eligible veterans to other taxpayers in the city, including property owners who rent to veterans.

In comments at the meeting, Foley cited numerous statistics about the financial difficulties of younger veterans and suggested in Schenectady veterans are probably more likely to rent than in other districts that in recent years have adopted the tax exemption. He said he didn’t want to approve a tax break for veterans that would potentially harm other veterans, a sentiment echoed by other board members.

A handful of veterans were on hand for the Wednesday meeting, waiting through nearly three hours of the meeting until the board’s discussion of the tax exemption. After the board rejected the exemption, some of the veterans on hand addressed comments to the board. The veterans cited the roughly 1,000 veterans who would benefit from the exemption and argued that veterans who currently rent may eventually purchase a home in the city.

“If you want to attract veterans, make it easier for them to purchase a home in this community, it makes sense to give them a break,” said Bob Serotta, who does not live in the district but serves as the commander of the local chapter of Disabled Veterans of America.

Serotta, who has helped organize veterans in other area districts to urge those school boards to approve the exemption, told the Schenectady board that the tax exemption could serve as an incentive for veterans to live in the district.

“I put on a uniform to protect all of your interests and the veterans who came after me did the same,” he said. “These are the type of people that you ought to try to attract to your community, really, this is what you need, you need character, that’s what builds a community.”

School district officials and board members across the state have bemoaned how the logistics of the law allowing the tax exemption have played out. Long after state lawmakers took credit for establishing the exemption, local school boards have been pressed by local veterans to adopt the exemption. The process has forced veterans to organize and demand adoption of the exemption, while putting school boards in the unenviable position of being asked to adopt a tax break for military veterans at the expense of other district taxpayers.

Foley said the analysis he asked for can still take place before the board considers the exemption again in the future, giving the board and district officials a chance to study what impact the exemption might have on veterans within the district who don’t own homes.

“I don’t think this is a dead issue at this point,” Foley said. “I think it’s something we have to come to a better understanding and get our hands around.”

In the meantime, board member Katherine Stephens cited the school board’s effort to lower the district tax levy for all residents as something that would benefit all the district’s veterans.

“We have been working to lower the tax levy for everybody, that is something we are doing for everybody,” Stephens said.

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