Frustrated and confused

Published 10:20 pm Saturday, June 4, 2011

Disabled veterans navigate tax-break minefield

Randy Bryant was excited when he learned he could receive a break on his real estate tax bill because of his military service-related disability.

Bryant was in the U.S. Army for 14 years and was deployed to Panama and Operation Desert Storm, among other places. His service-related disability now makes him unemployable, so he lives within his means.

“Me and my family are struggling,” said Bryant, who lives in the Lake Prince area. “Every little bit of relief that I can get helps.”

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A new state law, which voters endorsed overwhelmingly at the polls in November, requires localities to exempt real estate taxes for veterans and surviving spouses on a primary residence and up to 10 acres on the same property. Only veterans who have a 100 percent service-connected, permanent and total disability qualify.

Bryant’s excitement about the new law was short-lived. He soon found out that he is ineligible for the tax relief.

It’s a problem that several veterans in Suffolk have encountered, but it’s not unique to the city. Localities all over the state are having to inform veterans that they are ineligible because they’re not disabled enough, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many veterans, like Bryant, are receiving a 100-percent disability payment, because they are considered unemployable; however, their disability is not rated as 100 percent service-connected.

For example, Bryant’s disability, which he didn’t want revealed, is considered 70 percent service-connected. However, because he is unemployable, he receives the same benefits as if it were 100 percent service-connected.

“The legislation is worded in such a way that just because you receive 100 percent benefits, doesn’t mean you qualify,” he said.

In Suffolk, 62 veterans had applied for the tax relief as of last week, and 36 had been approved. For those who qualify, the exemption will first be reflected on their December 2011 tax bill.

But for those who don’t qualify, they still have to pay the full amount. That’s frustrating to veterans like Bryant, who haven’t seen an increase in their disability compensation in three years.

“I don’t believe the full intention of the bill is being applied,” he said.

According to a letter from City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn to City Council members, the Virginia Commissioner of Revenue Association has submitted a request to the state Attorney General for a legal opinion on the matter.

For now, Bryant said, he’ll have to keep paying taxes from his disability payments.

“I’m unable to go out here and get a job,” he said. “I have to live on the disability that the Veterans Administration grants me.”