Legislation signed in December by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that made school tax exemptions for available to certain veterans took effect with little advance notice, making it difficult for school boards tasked with deciding whether their districts would participate in the program to make well-researched and educated decisions.
But while the law certainly has good intentions — offering financial assistance for our veterans — it’s yet another example of state politicians patting themselves on the back while pushing the tough decisions down to the local level — in this case, to elected but volunteer school boards.
Unlike with STAR exemptions, which provide property tax breaks for homeowners earning less than $500,000 per year, the state doesn’t chip in to make up for the tax revenue lost to the new veterans’ exemptions. That’s up to the other taxpayers in each district.
While most people would agree helping veterans who protected the country during wartime is a worthy overall goal, creating unnecessary tension among neighbors is a side effect that has the potential to damage local communities. School officials have already expressed worry that, should they vote against the exemption, future school budgets could be voted down in protest. Yet at the same time, there are legitimate concerns about whether the local school tax burden is already too much for the average taxpayer. In some Long Island districts that have implemented the new exemption, taxpayers are expected to see their annual school taxes rise by as much as $70.
There are also many other questions to be asked, aside from computing the tax impact on taxpayers who don’t qualify. Riverhead school board vice president Greg Meyer asked a good one earlier this month, when he wondered whether local clergy and volunteer EMTs and firefighters would be the next groups to get school tax breaks.
At best, this recent legislation sends very mixed signals — especially since state lawmakers have spent so many years talking about reducing the property tax burden on New York State residents. And don’t forget their 2012 2 percent tax cap on year-to-year tax levy increases for all schools and local governments.
If New York State lawmakers wanted to offer tax breaks for veterans, there were myriad alternative ways to do so — state income tax credits and lower DMV fees come to mind.
Another logical fix could be to alter the STAR program itself: Reduce the $500,000 eligibility cutoff and shift the savings to veterans.
Admirable or not, if Albany wants to enact statewide tax breaks for some, thereby raising taxes for others, then Albany should do the work itself instead of passing the buck.
Clarification: Volunteer EMTs and firefighters, as well as clergy, are already entitled to school property tax exemptions. However the exemptions are different: 10 percent for volunteers, and $1,500 off of assessed value for clergy members, according to Riverhead Town Assessor Laverne Tennenberg.