Vietnam veteran Stephen Wittenberg is a member of his hometown American Legion Post 458 in Ardsley and of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 200 in Hastings-on-Hudson.
Although members of both posts served honorably, Wittenberg and other Ardsley veterans don’t receive the same benefits as their neighbors because of what he says is a flaw in state tax law. The two-year-old Alternative Veterans Exemption provides a school tax break for qualified veterans who live in districts that approve the measure. The 15 percent reduction in veterans’ property assessments was adopted in 2014 by the Hastings Board of Education. The Ardsley school board, in meetings packed with veterans, has voted against the measure twice.
“The state thought this was the right thing to do for veterans, but evidently, the Ardsley School District doesn’t,” Wittenberg said.
While school districts are reimbursed by the state for STAR tax exemptions, that’s not the case for the veterans tax break, which shifts the burden to other property owners. The result has been a divisive and sometimes emotional issue across the lower Hudson Valley and the state, as school districts decide whether acknowledging military service with a tax break is fair to other property owners who must pick up the tab.
Ardsley School Board President Joanne Sold said districts should not be put in that position.
“I’m struggling to live here and shifting taxes to me is not necessarily how I view as a way to honor our veterans,” she said was the sentiment of many in the community, adding that school boards shouldn’t differentiate between property owners.
School officials and veterans agree that a solution may be found in legislation sponsored by state Sen. David Carlucci, D-Rockland/Westchester, and Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, D-Greenburgh, which would require the state to reimburse school districts that approve the veterans tax exemption. The proposal has the support of the New York State School Boards Association and the American Legion Department of New York, which both list it as a “legislative priority” on their websites.
The state “should pass the law and pay for it,” Sold said, adding that the change would allow all school districts to approve the veterans exemption without hurting other taxpayers. According to state tax records, about one third of New York’s more than 700 school districts have approved the tax break; about half of those in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam have passed it.
“School board folks I’ve spoken to all say they’d like to do it, but that the state should pay for it,” said Air Force veteran Nicholas Del Pizzo, former commander of Nyack American Legion Post 310. “I agree that the state should fund this, but either way, I think local school districts should vote for the exemption.”
Del Pizzo appeared before the Nyack and Nanuet school boards to urge adoption of the tax break; Nyack approved it and Nanuet is still considering the measure. Del Pizzo said Nyack originally was against approving the exemption, “but they listened to the veterans, did some research and changed their minds, so kudos to them.”
James Montesano, superintendent of Nyack Public Schools, said the Board of Education adopted the exemption in January , but put a lot of time into the decision beforehand.
“We went through a lengthy process with this,” Montesano said. “Our board did a lot of reading on the issue… listened to a lot of the voices” in the community.
Nyack is joined by at least one other district in Rockland County — Ramapo Central — that considered and passed the exemption earlier this year.
In Pleasantville, where the tax break was approved in 2014, school board President Shane McGaffey agreed with those who want the state to reimburse local districts.
“Pleasantville was able to (pass the exemption) because we don’t have that many veterans, it doesn’t cost our community that much,” McGaffey said. “If the state wants to do things to help certain people out, then they should pay for it.”
Lobbying for support
Efrain Hernandez, a Vietnam veteran and commander of the Ardsley American Legion, said his post has embarked on what it hopes will become a statewide lobbying campaign among veterans groups to urge passage of the bill. They’ve already started a letter writing campaign to elected officials, and through Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, sent an email blast to town residents.
“I’m talking with other American Legion post commanders about it and plan to discuss with the Vietnam Veterans of America,” he said. “Our VVA members are very active and vocal statewide, and I’m sure this will get their support.”
That’s exactly what’s needed, said Abinanti. “I’m aware that the Ardsley American Legion is pushing, and we need more of that from veterans groups across the state. That’s what it will take to get this bill passed. We really should be using state funds for this exemption, and not put school boards in the position of having to choose between different groups of tax payers. It’s not fair to them.”
While many school boards have enacted the exemption, Carlucci said his bill “would encourage more to do so. By directing more state aid to school districts that opt in, we can avoid shifting more costs to taxpayers while still helping our veterans.”
Bill Rudi, 91, flew 35 missions over Europe in a B-17 bomber during World War II and has lived in Ardsley for 53 years. His son graduated from Ardsley High School in 1980. Rudi said he’s always supported the district, and is disappointed the school board didn’t approve the veterans exemption, even without state reimbursement.
“For me, it’s not even so much about need, although at my age every little bit counts,” he said. “It’s a question of recognizing veterans, who made sacrifices for this country and have supported the schools for years.”
‘Very good investment’
Vietnam veteran Jerry Donnellan, director of the Rockland Veterans Service Agency, has spoken at several Rockland school districts, saying that with or without state funding, its in a community’s best interest to adopt the veterans exemption.
“Most of our veterans are older. When they retire, if they can’t afford to stay, they move out of the county,” he said. “And we’re going to rely on our younger veterans, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, to volunteer for the fire departments, ambulance services and what have you. If offering them a few bucks in tax savings will keep them here, that’s a very good investment.”
Donnellan applauded Ardsley’s effort to push for adoption of the law so that the state will pay for the exemption.
“Most definitely, veterans organizations across the state need to get on board with this and make our voices heard in Albany,” he said. “It’s the only way to get it done.”
Air Force Veteran Frank Pagani, who helped organize the Ardsley American Legion push, said the post’s lobbying effort is starting to gain traction. He said Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, recently replied to his letter and pledged support. He said the state American Legion posted Ardsley’s call to action on its website.
Pagani said the Ardsley post won’t stop until the law is changed so that all school districts are reimbursed for providing the exemption.
“We’re veterans,” he said. “We don’t accept defeat. We’ll just keep plugging along until the mission is accomplished.”