Veterans hit snags over tax benefit

Problematic wording in a new state law, which doubled the homestead exemptions for totally disabled veterans, forbids parish tax assessors from granting the tax benefit to many of the veterans, a legislative committee heard Tuesday.

“I’m sitting here as a legislator, struggling over how am I going to get through this quagmire to get it fixed,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, at a special meeting of the Select Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The problem, explained David Lacerte, executive counsel for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, is that the law allows veterans rated as 100 percent service-related disabled to double their homestead exemption. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has an array of levels, ratings and exceptions, some of which don’t match the wording in the Louisiana law.

For instance, Alfred Cochran, of Lake Charles, who served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vietnam, is rated with 80 percent disability related to his service.

Though not rated 100 percent disabled, Cochran’s injuries were enough that he is considered unemployable by the U.S. Veterans Affairs and receives benefits as if he were totally disabled, he said.

As a additional proof, Cochran pulled out his card that allows only veterans with 100 percent service-related disability to take advantage of savings at PXs, which is the commonly known term for post exchanges where low-cost provisions are sold to active military.

Though viewed by U.S. Veterans Affairs as totally disabled because he’s unemployable, Cochran said he was denied the additional homestead exemption because the forms he presented to his assessor correctly listed his disability rating at 80 percent.

“We don’t want to violate the law and the statute doesn’t specify unemployability. We need some clarification,” said Wendy Aguillard, Tax Assessor for Calcasieu Parish, adding that she did not want to deny the benefit to Cochran but felt she had no choice.

“This form has two different standards on it,” said state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, pointing at the U.S. Veterans paperwork.

Murray said he hoped for a quick solution to the wording because Orleans Parish pays its property taxes for the coming year, rather than the previous, which is how the parishes across the rest state handle collections. That means any legislative fix, which can’t happen until the next session convenes April 8, wouldn’t exempt 2013 taxes for qualified veterans living in New Orleans but would cover 2013 taxes for those living in the state’s other parishes. In Orleans Parish, several types of municipal taxes also are subject to the homestead exemption.

“I don’t know what else to do with this issue at this point,” Adley said. The language likely needs to be changed by the Louisiana Legislature to include the proper wording, he said.

Louisiana’s Homestead Exemption excuses most property taxes up to $7,500 of the assessed value of a Louisiana homeowner owns and occupies. Homes are assessed at 10 percent of fair market value, meaning that the first $75,000 in market value is exempted.

The amendment, which passed in November 2010 with 65 percent of the vote, doubled the exemption for qualified disabled veterans. Generally, those veterans with 100 percent disability rating who live in homes they own that are valued up to $150,000 would pay no property taxes.

The median home value in the state is about $124,000, the Legislative Fiscal Office estimated in June 2010. An estimated 3,140 Louisiana residents would qualify as being 100 percent service-connected disabled, and they live in 2,125 homes that would be eligible for the exemption, the fiscal office calculated.