Getting Florida voters to agree to give wounded veterans a property tax break was, it turns out, much easier than actually giving them the discount.
Just more than 60 percent of Florida voters in November approved a constitutional amendment that expanded an existing property tax discount for home-owning veterans and made it exponentially more inclusive. But in opening the door to thousands more veterans, the change also has spawned confusion and uncertainty over how the law should be applied.
To qualify for the discount, veterans must show proof that they were injured in combat. But property appraisers across the Tampa Bay area said that veterans are having a difficult time producing paperwork to show the cause of their disability.
Compounding this problem is the sudden boom in the number of veteran applicants.
In 2010, only 1,206 veterans in Florida qualified for the tax discount because it required them to have lived in the state at the time they joined the military, said Steve Murray, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. Amendment 2 removed that initial residency requirement and now an estimated 74,000 veterans could qualify, according to the veterans affairs agency.
"The problem is there are so many people applying now," said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance at the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. "I spoke to (an official in) a rather large county this morning who said in the past three years they had only handled one of these and now they're being deluged."
Pinellas County, where thousands of veterans have settled, is having an especially hard time handling the flood of applicants. Over 500 veterans have applied, said Property Appraiser Pam Dubov.
In a typical case, she said, a veteran will apply for the discount and show a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs called a DD-214 form. It lists their injury and their disability percentage, a rating to indicate how disabled they are. Someone who lost his hearing during wartime might have a 10 percent disability rating; a veteran who lost a limb could have an 80 percent rating. The higher the rating, the bigger the discount.
The problem, Dubov said, is that these letters rarely say how the veteran was injured.
"Sometimes we can figure it out anyway," she said. "If a guy comes in and says, 'I was in Vietnam and my right hand got blown off.' I can see that he did serve, that he got a Purple Heart. There are ways of piecing it together one guy at a time. But sometimes it's just not possible."
Proving a veteran is eligible for the discount can be especially complicated if he has an invisible wound, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
According to Tarter, veterans' disability rating decisions should contain information about whether they were wounded in combat. If not, veterans should be able to get that information from national service organizations like the American Red Cross or Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But property appraisers said it has not been that simple.
In Hillsborough County, only 29 people have been approved to receive the discount and new applications are trickling in, said the county's exemption supervisor, Marilyn Martinez. Many veterans who were approved for the discount have had to get letters from their branch of service proving that they were injured in combat, she said.
However, the service branches are not always able to provide proof, said Paulette Stearns, who oversees the exemptions for Hernando County.
"This has been such a problem," she said.
In Pasco County, only 18 people have applied for the discount, but there, the property appraiser has been less strict.
When residents bring in the form that shows they are veterans with a disability, "we accept that at face value," said Wade Barber, the county's chief deputy property appraiser.
To send veterans on a hunt for documents to prove their injuries took place during combat "might be splitting hairs at the expense of people," he said.
But Dubov said she already has encountered at least one veteran whose claim to a combat-related injury was dubious. While digging through his forms, she found one from Veterans Affairs saying the agency could not prove he had been wounded in combat.
"I don't want to give away the store, but I also don't want to make people jump through hoops who have served honorably," she said. "What I'd like to do is not have every one of these be a mystery."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.