By Claire Walla
For veterans living in the Town of Southampton, government aid is in a flux. First it’s too much, then it’s too little; but, East End policy makers have introduced a bill that might make it just right.
After news broke last month that Southampton Town had, since 2006, fudged the equation that affords veterans property tax exemptions — a blunder that cost the town an estimated $1.1 million — 83 percent of residential property-owning vets learned that the aid they had received in the last five years was, on average, $86 too high, according to town assessor John Valente.
Moving forward, according to a letter sent to all veterans by Valente, Southampton Town would assess veterans’ property tax exemptions using the correct formula, which would essentially increase property taxes for the majority of vets affected by the town’s flaw.
Now, in the wake of such news, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and State Senator Ken LaValle have stepped in with some potentially good news, introducing a bill that, should it pass, would alleviate some of this burden.
According to the proposed legislation, the real property tax law in New York State would be amended for veterans’ exemptions to account for the rise in property values. Veterans in New York State currently receive property tax exemptions for property values up to $360,000. New legislation would increase this amount to around $500,000.
The tax refund is also capped at specific amounts. For wartime veterans it’s 15 percent of assessed value capped at $54,000, for combat veterans it’s 10 percent of assessed value capped at $36,000 and disabled veterans — who have the largest kick-back — this number is 50 percent of each veteran’s disability rating, capped at $180,000.
The new legislation would increase the cap by $21,000 for wartime veterans, $14,000 for combat veterans and $70,000 for disabled veterans.
For Sag Harbor resident Jim Larocca, a member of the New York State public service commission and co-chairman of the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, news of this legislation is positive.
Larocca, himself a veteran, was set to see his tax benefit decrease from $273.13 to $66.02, a 76 percent drop. He expressed disappointment over Valente’s announcement in an open letter to the Southampton Town Board, appealing to the board to “remedy the problem by another amendment to the Town Code, reserving its action of 2006.”
At a press conference last Thursday, June 9 Senator Ken LaValle said this legislation is necessary, given the current economic climate.
“As property values rise, municipalities should be afforded the opportunity to increase the maximum exemptions allowed under the alternative veteran’s exemption to provide a worthwhile means to help war-time veterans maintain home ownership,” he said. “Our veterans deserve no less.”
Assemblyman Thiele said this proposed legislation is not a Band-Aid for the town’s accounting error.
“There’s nothing we can directly do about that legislation,” he said in an interview this week, adding that the numbers cannot be fixed retroactively. But, this new legislation “is a way of increasing the exemption back up.”
He added that the rise in property taxes here on the East End has necessitated reviewing this legislation for quite a while.
“That cap may be great in Binghamton,” Thiele said of the current legislation, referring to a town where the median home value is less than $100,000. “But that is a fairly low cap when you look at real estate values here on the East End of Long Island.”
“Many of our veterans’ property tax exemption benefits are significantly limited by the state exemption cap because property values have rising so dramatically in the last decade,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, addressing the crowd at last week’s press conference. “This legislation is an important step towards honoring the exemption these veterans are due, and providing some additional and well-deserved tax relief.”