Riverhead school board approves property tax exemptions for veterans

South Jamesport veteran John Newman addressing the Riverhead school board Tuesday night. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson)
South Jamesport veteran John Newman addressing the Riverhead school board Tuesday night. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson)

The Riverhead school board has unanimously approved a new property tax exemption for local veterans that will go into effect during the 2015-16 fiscal year.

After eight residents spoke during Tuesday night’s public hearing, the board voted 6-0 to adopt the “basic maximum” exemption, which is expected to increase property taxes for all other district residents between $19.50 and $25 annually.

School board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse was absent from the meeting.

A crowd of veterans, including district residents that served during World War II, attended the public hearing to show their support for the exemption.

South Jamesport veteran John Newman gave an emotional statement during the hearing prior to the vote and referenced a story about how a teacher in Little Rock, Ark., taught her students about the value of freedom by starting the day without desks in the classroom, teaching them about sacrifice, and later surprising the children when veterans returned their desks.

“It might not help them in the long run, but it certainly helps them in the short run,” Mr. Newman said of the exemption.

School board member Amelia Lantz, a U.S. Air Force veteran, also fought back tears when expressing her support for the exemption, though she doesn’t qualify for the tax break.

“When I came back and my child was under 2 years old, I had been away for so long that she didn’t recognize me,” she said. “I will never forget that, and that was the price that I paid. No amount of tax is going to replace that, but it’s simply the recognition and the thank you.”

Riverhead resident Kimberly Wilder was the lone person to speak in opposition to the exemption. She said she believes the exemption should also be extended to people involved with promoting peace, such as members of the American Friends Service Committee.

“I’m somebody that values peace over war,” she said. “I don’t think people want to keep encouraging more and more wars, so this [the tax exemption] is kind of encouraging people to sign up for war.”

“I think we should encourage people to work for peace and work for justice and all the different ways that aren’t hurting other people,” she added.

Don Sievers, a Vietnam veteran who served for 12 years in the U.S. Navy, addressed Ms. Wilder directly, saying that although he respects and honors her opinion, he believes the exemption is needed for veterans.

“Peace is a wonderful thing and all of the organizations that promote peace are wonderful and we should not stop it,” he said. “But we don’t live in a perfect world … We need armed forces to protect this country. Did we forget 9/11?”

“The veterans need it,” he continued. “The veterans deserve it. They fight for this country.”

Among the other residents that stated their support during the hearing were Riverhead Town Councilman John Dunleavy and Laurie Downs, a challenger for one of two open Riverhead school board seats.

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 portions of a veteran’s tax bill. Last year, the state Legislature approved an amendment to expand the program to school districts, which Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law in December.

Exemption benefits include a reduction of up to 15 percent in assessed value for veterans who served during a time of war and an additional 10 percent reduction in assessed value for veterans who served in combat zones, according to the legislation.

Disabled veterans with war-related injuries are also eligible for additional tax reductions.

There are 1,700 parcels within the Riverhead Town portion of the district that are eligible for the exemption, town officials have said, and about 260 veterans live on the Southampton Town side.

Figures for the Brookhaven Town veterans also reside within the district weren’t immediately available.

The school board also adopted an exemption for Gold Star parents living within the district. The designation is given when a child dies in the line of duty while serving in the Armed Forces during a period of war, according to online state documents.

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