It took approximately 30 minutes for the Onteora Central School District board of education to approve by unanimous vote a tax exemption for wartime Veterans. A re-vote was held at a special meeting on February 27 at the Middle/High School Auditorium after a previous vote on February 20 failed to reach a majority of four votes, while two members were absent. Five Trustees voted in favor of the resolution: Tom Hickey, Dan Spencer, Ann McGillicuddy, Michael Mckeon and Rob Kurnit. Tony Fletcher, who had voted against the measure at the earlier meeting, and Laurie Osmond, who had abstained at that time, did not attend on February 27.
In order for the exemption to carry into the 2014/2015 fiscal school year that begins in July, the vote was needed by March 1, according to State mandate. With the resolution passed, taxes will be slightly higher; approximately $5 per $100,000 of equalized assessed property value. Fletcher sited work obligations for not attending the current meeting, but wrote a letter that was read aloud by McGillicuddy stating that the board of education should not be responsible for shifting taxes; that instead it should be left to the state.
There are three categories of tax exemptions for war veterans: $12,000 for wartime, an additional $8,000 for wartime with combat and up to $40,000 for disability.
Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill addressed the dozens of people, mostly Veterans who attended the meeting. She apologized for being absent, due to an emergency family matter, when the first vote took place. She explained that unlike the STAR program where the State covers the tax relief, this particular exemption is burdened upon local taxpayers. “It’s another situation where the local districts have to take on the brunt and we’re dispersing the difference among the tax payers,” said McGill. “That being said I wanted to make it clear that I’m in support of recommending to the board that we approve this and I committed to get the board to meet again, because how the vote went before was confusing.”
Spencer and McKeon explained that their absence from the February 20 meeting and the vote was due to work obligations and not because they didn’t favor the measure. According to McKeon, he received emails on the subject and wanted to clear up a misunderstanding. “I only wanted to say this, to speak to the fact that there seems to be a huge cynicism throughout our community, in our politics, and our country at large, that there would be cynical ploys to have just enough people not show up so that something like this wouldn’t pass.” McKeon continued, “It simply wasn’t the case, it was just a matter of scheduling and an honest mistake and we’re addressing that now and I just wanted to let you know, you can have faith in the people at this table.”
During public commentary, Woodstock resident and Veteran Terry Breitenstein said, “I would like to thank the board for their vote and participations. There’s been feelings hurt, accusations, so on and so fourth due to the circumstances, but I appreciate that you took the time to meet with us again.”
Several Trustees took advantage of a captured audience by asking them to get more involved, since usual board business is conducted with hardly any public attendance. Spencer said, “I would suggest that the enthusiasm that you shared with us tonight, be carried on because there is a lot that can be done for the educational system. We could use your support because as this was pointed out, we often don’t get such a great turnout.” Several trustees asked audience members to write to the State and lobby for fair tax reform and State funding in order to meet mandated requirements.