Tax exemption OK’d for spouses of those killed in line of duty

Published 1:47 pm Tuesday, July 4, 2023

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A property tax exemption of surviving spouses of those killed in the line of duty won City Council’s approval at its June 21 meeting. 

The proposed change received support from speakers who addressed Council.

It received support from Amy Griffin and her son David – the family of fallen firefighter Chris Griffin, who served the Norfolk Fire and Rescue for 11 years.

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Norfolk resident Lawrence Brown also told council he supports the ordinance. 

“Tonight, I hope that this passes. We support this because those men and women have sacrificed for their community, and we’re hoping that this council protects them as we protect you,” Brown said. “This is an ordinance that has been passed in most of your sister cities like Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Newport News. We’re asking you to honor the intent when the General Assembly passed this line of duty ordinance that the localities would have the option to make this an ordinance or amendment for the surviving spouses and their members.”

Brown said this is something for the men and women who protect everyone.

“We’re asking you to protect their families,” he said.

The concept of the exemption began during the 2016 November General Election where Virginians approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the General Assembly to give localities the option to exempt property taxation for surviving spouses of any law-enforcement officer, firefighter, emergency medical services and search and rescue personnel who die in the line of duty.

Vote tallies from that in Suffolk show those going to the polls favored the amendment 78.75% to 21.25%. Out of 30 localities, nine passed the amendment including the cities of Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and Isle of Wight county. 

During the June 21 work session held prior to Council’s meeting, Suffolk Senior Administrative Analyst Randah Gaitan explained the exemption, providing extra details such as the Virginia Retirement System determining if a deceased individual qualifies as a covered person “under the line of duty death act.” 

“An applicant must be the spouse of a ‘covered person,’” she said in her presentation. “The covered person is defined in the Line of Duty Act as any person whose death occurs on or after April 8th, 1972 as a direct or proximate result of the performance of his duty, including presumptions.” 

Gaitan went on to explain the exemption’s prerequisites, such as only being used on the surviving spouse’s “primary residence.” The exemption can only be used to an average assessed value of residential dwellings, plus up to 10 acres of land. The surviving spouse must have the title/partial title to the real property at the time of the application and they cannot remarry and enjoy the exemption.

Councilman Roger Fawcett shared his support for the amendment, reflecting on his own history as a safety officer.

“Myself being an ex-public safety for a number of years gives me no more pleasure … than to support all these men and women that are out here each day in the frontlines supporting us as citizens,” Fawcett said. “Therefore, I would like to ask for this ordinance to be approved.”

Councilman John Rector followed up expressing his support for the exemption.

“It is not an impactful ordinance to our budget, but it will be very impactful for the families it will pertain to,” Rector said.

While he supported the ordinance, Johnson expressed his concern on the tax impact to the city.

“We have to go back in time, so if the person died in 2017 and their spouse has been in the house since 2023, we’d have to go back to 2017 to make restitution to them,” Johnson said. “I would really like to know the impact on our city.”

He said he hopes it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, “but it kind of-sort of is a big deal to go back that many years.”

He also expressed concern about someone moving into the city when their family member was killed in the line of duty in another municipality.

City Manger Albert S. Moor II clarified that in the case of the Norfolk firefighter who died in the line of duty, the family lives in Suffolk with the exemption being on their property in the city. 

Mayor Mike Duman then added clarification on how Virginia Retirement System comes into play with an exemption. 

“When this was brought up in 2019, what you have to remember is VRS does the verification, so people cannot move from another state – into Virginia – and get the exemption,” the mayor explained. “VRS is the one that will determine if it’s a line of duty death.”

In 2019, Duman said he called VRS and determined that there was a total exemption of about $3,000 at that point.

“I am firmly convinced that the fiscal impact will not be significant at all,” Duman said. “Even if you got some reservations about it, this ordinance can always be rescinded or there can also be a moratorium placed on it, if in actuality it turns out to have significant impact,” Duman said. “I think it is a very small token to our first responders and they’re the ones that ensure our safety and security everyday. To their surviving spouses, I think this is a way we can honor their loved ones’ service and help them with the tragedy that’s left behind. So with that being said, I am most assuredly in favor of passing this ordinance as well.”

The ordinance won unanimous approval on an 8-0 vote.

Editor’s note: Updated third quote and ninth passage at 10:42 a.m., Thursday, July 6, to reflect accuracy.