Friday, February 28, 2014


Following a debate that began as far back as 2006, last year the Senate finally came to agreement with the Assembly on a bill that allows school districts to extend property tax exemptions to veterans. It was signed into law by Governor Cuomo in late-December, a perfect Christmas present for the men and women who were willing to potentially give up their limbs or life for American interests and national defense.

Despite the positive intentions of the bill, the chances are good that you’ll also see a belabored debate about the exemptions in local school districts. Most school boards have already discussed them in detail, likely a little in public and a lot more behind closed doors -- and they still don’t have any answers. In order to meet the parameters of the new state law, school boards would have had to approve local exemptions by last Saturday to make them available for the 2014-2015 budget year. Only a handful of districts across the state have done that, most opting instead to delay the decision to a later date.

As simple as one might first think it is to grant the tax breaks (who wouldn’t support a vet?), it’s not. The boards are finding it difficult to balance altruism with fiscal planning, especially since the burden of making up for the lost revenues falls onto the communities, not onto the state as is the case with the long-lived STAR program.  

In some cases, it’s not chump change that we’re talking about. Take the Wellsville School District for example. They have nearly 400 veterans living in the district who would receive some sort of exemption (the state law has 3 levels of breaks). Those exemptions would account for $2.3 million in displaced revenue, which would have to be collected from the other Wellsville property owners. With a total budget a smidge over $27 million, they would be looking at an 8.5% increase in their property tax bill just to accommodate the veterans’ exemptions -- and there would still be the annual, overall spending increase to account for, too! Further confounding the issue is the near-certainty that as the exemptions are granted, those properties removed from the tax rolls will yield smaller STAR payments to the district. It’s a damning predicament for a village whose residents routinely pay the highest effective tax rate in the state.

The numbers are considerably less-frightening – therefore, the tax breaks are more attractive -- in the Lockport School District which is a larger district than Wellsville and is blessed with a much stronger economy (far more retail operations and factories). In Lockport, non-veteran taxpayers would see their taxes rise by 1.3% to cover the exemptions. For a $100,000 home, that’s an extra $36 per year.

Even so, Lockport decision-makers are finding it difficult to do their duty and come to a decision. Like all other districts, they are left wondering, “Who do you please? Who do you offend? Veterans or the majority of taxpayers?” They considered putting it to the voters as a referendum on the May school budget ballot, but that idea was shot down: It is illegal under state law; the boards themselves must make the final decision.

One district – Batavia -- has decided to take it to the polls anyways. They will be holding a straw vote in May. The results will be non-binding, but it will give them the understanding of public sentiment that they need to make their decision (which will be based entirely on the outcome of the straw poll).

That’s probably the route other school boards will take once word of Batavia’s actions spreads. Few board members want to be labeled as the bad guy who says “no” to vets, so a straw poll will serve as an adequate shield for that. That’s especially true given that most school board members across the state are actually against the tax exemptions: Of the 600 of them who responded to a recent School Boards Association survey, 70 percent were opposed.     

It’s a really perilous decision for boards to make. They all know that property owners are burned out by the amount of taxes they already pay, yet at the same time some understand that veterans are worthy of something for the blood, sweat and tears (and friends) that they gave for our nation.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


What do Gerald Ford, Neil Armstrong, and William DeVries have in common?
All of them were members of the Boy Scouts of America who achieved the rank of Eagle Scout and went on to do great things.

That begs the question: Would they have contributed to society as much as they did were they not scouts? Would they have led our nation, walked on the moon, or transplanted hearts? Maybe. Maybe not.

What can be said with some certainty, though, is that the BSA had a significant impact on their lives and is partially responsible for what drove them to greatness. It taught them lessons on the values of community, work ethic and leadership which cannot be found in schools, sports or in many homes. It has done so for millions of young men since its inception in 1910, inspiring, if not creating, yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.
The Scouting program is just as important now as it was at it dawning 104 years ago -- and it could even be argued that it might have greater significance today. It’s the perfect outlet for youth and it can help them overcome some of the obstacles in their paths.

There’s a lot missing in boy’s lives nowadays: Their outdoor pursuits have taken a back seat to new-fangled electronics, they don’t share the same bond with their real-world communities that they do with their trivial Internet communities, their schools have totally lost sight of civic education, and they struggle to find continuity in broken homes which, sadly, have become too commonplace.

The BSA addresses all those issues and then some. Camping and other outdoor activities are the cornerstone of the Scouting program, using the struggles and successes of pastoral adventure as a source of experiential learning, teaching the boys a wide variety of skills accompanied by a powerful mix of leadership, teamwork, self-reliance and self-confidence.
Scouting also gets them out and about in their towns and villages, fostering a sense of community pride and a desire to help make better the world around them.

It is all of this - in combination with the guidance provided by peers and scoutmasters - that can give today’s youth the support needed to survive a broken home or beat a broken community.
Not only does this help the boy, it also helps the parent. Many mothers and fathers struggle to help their son find his voice, his calling, in any number of pursuits, be it sports, band or other extracurricular activities. Quite often these families find themselves with a void, unable to satisfy their desire to better their sons. Scouting is the one-stop source – the complete package - that can alleviate that stress. It combines the best of everything else into an all-encompassing program, one guaranteed to keep a boy’s attention and interest and one destined to make him a better man.
For today’s busy parents, it’s a convenient option for those who feel spread thin: It’s one meeting a week, one campout a month, and one week-long trip a year. That small investment of a family’s time can create a lifetime of memories and, more importantly, a lifetime of success.
Take it from someone who was a Boy Scout and achieved the rank of Eagle. I know I would not be the man I am now had it not been for Scouting. Scouting instilled in me the civic-mindedness that drives these columns and my volunteerism and it fostered the values that I apply in my day-to-day decisions. The BSA was so important to me that I place its significance on my upbringing second behind my family and far ahead of any schooling at a distant third. It was – and remains – that important.
It can have that same effect on your son, too. I strongly suggest that he give it a try. Visit to find a local scout council near you that can assist in finding a troop in your hometown. Joining the Boy Scouts of America is a decision you – and your son - won’t regret.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


In 2009, the federal government passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act which mandated that the states have federal absentee ballots in the hands of overseas military personnel at least 45 days before an election, ensuring that their completed ballots could be received by local boards of elections in a timely fashion, guaranteeing that the warriors’ voices are heard while they are off protecting those same rights for others.

The MOVE Act has had an impact on primary elections nationwide, because states that had theirs in the fall – like New York with its second-Tuesday-after-Labor-Day date – could not meet federal standards. Once the outcomes of the primaries were known, the official regular election ballots would physically have to be in the hands of military personnel by the third week of September. Impossible.

In 2010, since state officials couldn’t get their act together to accommodate this rather simple and well-intentioned law, New York, along with 4 other states, was granted a waiver by the Department of Defense and held its federal primaries in September.

The feds weren’t so kind in 2012 when a federal judge stepped in and mandated a June federal primary in the Empire State. Because of the legislative impasse that led to that, New York voters participated in 2 primaries – one in June for federal elections and another in September for local and state elections. The exhausted voters then had to vote for the real deal in November.

Five years after the passage of the MOVE Act, we seem to be no further ahead. Because of the intent of the law (to allow access to the polls to our servicemen and women) and the cost (the bill for the extra primary was $50 million to New York taxpayers), Democrat leaders in the Assembly passed a bill earlier this year that would create a harmonized primary date, whereby state and local primaries would be held on the same June date as the federal primaries – the fourth Tuesday in June. That’s a logically, philosophically and fiscally sound premise.

But, Republican leaders in the state Senate and the band of rogue Senate Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference want nothing to do with it.  They want both the federal and state primaries to be held on the third Tuesday in August. If that’s the GOP’s idea of a compromise, it’s a horrid one at best: That date is not really that far off from the current September primary and its one that sets-up boards of election for non-compliance and potential lawsuits from the federal government (not to mention slighting of our armed forces). 

The Republicans’ proclaimed reasons for their date are a stretch. Tom O’Mara (R – Big Flats), the sponsor of the Senate bill, said a June primary would disrupt the final month of the legislative session in Albany. That’s a contorted way of implying that O’Mara and his peers are more interested in politicking than doing the peoples’ work, that there’s no way that they could do both.

Silly me, I thought results in the legislative chamber and in your district were the best way to ensure your job, not self-promoting showmanship on the airwaves and $100-a-plate dinners. But, I guess O’Mara and his peers don’t see it that way, they would rather be out rubbing elbows than doing the job they are paid $79,500 (plus numerous extras) to do.   

The self-preservation doesn’t end there. The Senate plan, like our current September set-up, benefits those in power and would continue to be a key driver of an incumbency rate that normally exceeds 90% in the state legislature. Typically, incumbents remain uncontested in primaries because they have name recognition and the support of their party leaders – why rock the boat? Challengers from other parties, on the other hand, aren’t afforded such a smooth ride. They typically square-off in primaries that drain finances and energy. With the conclusion of the September primary (or what could be an August primary), the victors don’t have the momentum or finances (both have been wiped out) to stage an all-out war against the incumbent in that two-month time frame. A June primary would put an end to that mess, and afford others an equal chance at office.

Let’s hope the legislative head-butting ends soon and the Senate and Assembly come to an agreement. If they don’t, we will have a repeat of 2012 – 2 primaries, a $50 million bill, and an election process that disrespects those protecting our nation and its interests abroad.