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By Mareesa Nicosia
School districts in the Lower Hudson Valley are mulling a new law that allows them to grant property-tax exemptions to eligible veterans, who until now have only been able to get breaks on municipal tax bills.
The legislation went into effect quietly at the end of December, leaving districts with just two months to hold public hearings and a vote for the exemption to have an impact this year. That’s because applicants seeking property-tax exemptions must file by March 1.
An informal Journal News poll of districts in the region found that, in some cases, any benefit to veterans wouldn’t be realized before 2015.
“It’s a really complicated issue,” East Ramapo Superintendent Joel Klein said at a recent school board meeting, where he recommended postponing any action until next year. “What we really need now is more time to study this.”
Klein said his staff was talking with county and town officials to figure out the potential impact on non-veteran taxpayers, who would pick up the cost of exemptions given to veterans.
Under the law, a veteran’s qualified residential parcel receives an exemption equal to 15 percent of a property’s assessed value. Additional exemptions apply for service in a combat zone and for those who have a service-connected disability. State Sen. David Carlucci, D-New City, sponsored the bill.
In Rockland County, where more senior citizens are deciding to move away rather than struggle to keep up with rising taxes, an extra break might encourage some to stay, said Jerry Donnellan, director of the county Veterans Service Agency. Of the county’s nearly 15,000 veterans, two-thirds could be eligible for the exemption, he estimated.
Nanuet resident Alan Moskin, who relies on Social Security, said he and some other veterans plan to speak to the Clarkstown school board about their concerns.
“The taxes are just so terribly high,” the 87-year-old World War II Army veteran said. “My children are in South Carolina, and you start thinking, ‘You know, maybe you ought to get out.’”
Susan Branam, deputy director at the veterans agency, said she’s spoken with all eight Rockland school districts.
“I think it’s a real dilemma,” said Branam, a former Army helicopter pilot. “I think it would be a wonderful incentive to keep veterans residing in Rockland County, but times are tough right now, and that’s unfortunate. It’s a really hard problem that the school boards are going to have to deal with.”
The Ramapo Central School District will hold a public hearing Feb. 24 as it considers opting in. In Putnam County, the Carmel district is polling its residents and has set a public hearing for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the high school library.
In Westchester, New Rochelle could hold a hearing and vote at the end of the month if officials have enough information in hand, school board President David Lacher said.
“It seems like a pretty compelling initiative,” he said.
Stephen Wittenberg of Ardsley, a 66-year-old Army veteran, has been drumming up support among his friends at the American Legion, and sent emails to the school board.
“When veterans go away and serve the country, they lose a couple of years — they’re out of the moneymaking loop, so to speak, so (the exemption) is a nice little catch-up,” he said.
The Ardsley school board won’t hold a hearing until it can get a better idea of what the cost to non-veteran taxpayers would be. It also must consider the status of its other exemptions, board President George Holt said.
“A break for veterans living on fixed incomes is great, but it’s possible that another non-veteran person who is also on a fixed income could be paying more because of it,” he said. “We wish the state had honored veterans by saying, ‘This exemption is granted, and, by the way, we’re going to pay for it.’ But, instead, they put the burden on the districts.”
Staff writer Cara Matthews contributed to this report.