Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Disabled vets in Utah county find easier path to benefits

From The Deseret News:

Disabled veterans facing bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining property tax exemptions in Salt Lake County should have an easier path following a policy shift approved by the County Council June 23.

Terry Schow, executive director of the Utah Department of Veteran Affairs, said Tuesday that his office has been besieged with complaints from vets running into trouble securing benefits from the county.

"We've received more complaints from veterans with disabilities in Salt Lake County than the whole rest of the state combined," Schow said.

Disabled veterans are eligible for a break on property taxes, collected by the county treasurer, based on the percentage of their disability — a number that is determined by the Veteran's Administration. Schow said the benefit is offered to vets who have been determined to have a 10 percent or higher level of disability. Each 10 percent increment represents about a $25,000 decrease on the taxable value of their property, up to about $230,000, a number set by the Utah Tax Commission.

The problems vets have run into, according to testimony Schow offered the council Tuesday, is being required to provide multiple verifications for their disability rating, especially in the case of documents that may show different numbers. County treasurer, Larry Richardson said his hands have been tied by statute, notably in cases where there's conflicting or dated information.

"If their information wasn't current … or wasn't clear … we needed to ask for current information," Richardson said.

Another requisite of the treasurer's office, as required under the upcoming implementation of SB81, is the verification of legal presence for those who receive state and municipal benefits. To this end, Richardson's office has sent out requests for this verification to the more than 3,000 disabled veterans who qualify for the property tax break in Salt Lake County.

This form, Schow said, has led some vets to believe if they didn't provide adequate documentation, they would lose their tax break.

Council Chairman Joe Hatch peppered Richardson with questions on this policy, particularly to why those who had served, and been wounded, in service to the country where now being asked to verify their legality.

"They fought for this country and they have the right to be here," Hatch said. "Don't they?"

Deputy District Attorney Dahnelle Burton-Lee said Richardson's efforts to comply with SB81 were not unreasonable.

"Larry was caught between a rock and a hard place this year because of the statute requirements," Burton-Lee said.

To ease the documentation required of vets, the council voted to acknowledge that those who had received benefits in the past could reasonably be recognized as legally present and stipulated that, in records that might indicate different percentages of disability, the highest number be used to calculate a tax benefit. They also specified that a vet designated as "individually unemployable" by the VA automatically be granted the maximum benefit, even if his or her rating was below the 100 percent level.

After the meeting, Schow said he was happy with the council action.

"We're very encouraged by the council's decision," Schow said. "We shouldn't be making disabled veterans fight for these benefits after they have fought … and sacrificed for our country."