Following one of the most lengthy debates among Riverhead school board members in recent years on Tuesday night, the board unanimously approved setting a public hearing to discuss a new property tax exemption for local veterans.
School board member Amelia Lantz, a U.S. Air Force veteran, said although she doesn’t qualify for the exemption, she believes it should be approved.
“This is a small way of saying thank you to our veterans,” she said. “Within reason, we can still function as a district. This is doable.”
School board vice president Greg Meyer, who works as a firefighter and emergency medical technician at Brookhaven National Lab, expressed his gratitude for veterans’ sacrifices but questioned why the district should consider one group for tax breaks over others.
“Clergies, firefighters, EMS, disabled, seniors, and STAR. I still think we should talk about them all, not just the veterans,” he said. “Are we going to talk about the veterans because that’s the hot topic right now? Or, as a board, do we talk about them all?”
While property tax exemptions for veterans have been in effect statewide since the 1980s, they have until now only been applied to the county and town’s portion of a veteran’s tax bill. Last year, the state Legislature approved an amendment to expand the program to school districts, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law in December.
Although school boards are able to consider varying exemption amounts, assistant superintendent Sam Schneider had a joint presentation at the March 25 meeting with local assessors and focused on the “basic maximum” exemption, which he said is the most popular level among East End schools. Only Bridgehampton and Tuckahoe approved higher exemption levels, he said.
Since the district is split between different three different townships — Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven — Mr. Schneider estimated on Tuesday that if the school board approved the basic maximum exemption, then the school portion of property taxes for homeowners across the district would increase between $19.50 and $25 annually.
Veteran John Krulder of Calverton, who has three children in the district, said during the public comment portion of the meeting that he believes the school board shouldn’t delay approving the exemption.
“For the past 15 years, I’ve deployed overseas away from my family, sacrificing birthdays and far too many milestone events,” he told the board. “It’s a veteran that provided each and every one of you the right to sit on the Board of Education and make these decisions for this district. I’m counting on each and every one of you to unanimously vote ‘yes.’”
School board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse became emotional during the meeting, speaking about how she didn’t get to see her father until she was 2 because he was serving in Europe during World War II.
“I know what you’ve given up,” she said, tearing up in response to Mr. Krulder’s comment. “But, I have to say, I feel as a school board we have a responsibility of finding out all the facts. I do not want the veterans to think that by finding out the facts that we aren’t going to do it.”
School board member Christopher Dorr, whose father is a veteran, said he needs more feedback from the community before making a decision since the district has a lot of students that qualify for free or reduced lunches.
“My concern is, yes, you do deserve a break, but [then there’s] the family of four that’s barely putting food on the table,” he said. “I would have no problem doing more, but we have to think of them also.”
Southold and Shoreham-Wading River are the only local school districts which adopted the exemption before March 1, in time for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
If Riverhead decides to approve it before next year’s deadline, the exemption will go into effect for the 2015-16 school year.
The school board didn’t set the public hearing Tuesday night, but said it would publish a notice announcing the date.