(Host) A South Burlington man’s crusade on behalf of disabled military veterans became a statewide movement at town meetings this week.
As VPR’s John Dillon reports, residents in about 40 towns were inspired by the work of Lou Lertola to increase property tax breaks for the vets.
(Dillon) Lertola was working the phones after town meeting, calling town clerks and trying to figure out how many communities voted to help veterans. But he says the part-time nature of some small town offices means it was tough to get the results immediately.
(Lertola) "Like Isle la Motte, I called them. Their town clerk is Tuesday and Thursday, so I’ve got to call back Thursday to find out."
(Dillon) Lertola is a disabled Korean War vet and over the last few years, he’s led a volunteer effort to ease property tax burdens for other wounded veterans. Vermont law allows towns to exempt the first $40,000 of a disabled vet’s property value from local taxes.
But Lertola said he was shocked to discover a few years back that many towns allow the tax break on only $10,000 or $20,000 of property value.
His hometown of South Burlington was one of the communities where the full exemption was not provided.
(Lertola) "So I just went to the city council, and said, ‘Why not us?’ Nobody on the council knew what I was talking about."
(Dillon) Once council members learned about the issue, they quickly placed it on the ballot for the next town meeting – and it was overwhelmingly approved. That’s when Lertola decided to take the issue statewide.
(Lertola) "Driving home from that meeting, I said, ‘You know, I bet there are a lot of towns in the state, with the turnover of selectboards, etc., aren’t aware of it.’"
(Dillon) So Lertola started making calls and enlisting other veterans around the state for the town meeting ballot initiative. He says the sad fact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that more veterans will need the tax break.
(Lertola) "My biggest concern is that I don’t think some of our people are going to come back the way they went over there. They’re going to war. And there’s going to be death, there’s going to be dismemberment. There’s going to be a lot of things."
(Dillon) In Moretown in the Mad River Valley, the veteran’s item was not on the ballot before the meeting.
But it was taken up under other business. Town Moderator Steve Magill called the question.
(Magill) "So the article is that the people of Moretown support providing our disabled veterans the maximum amount of tax relief allowed by state law. All those in favor indicate by saying aye?"
(Magill) "The ayes appear to have it. The ayes do have it."
(Dillon) That was pretty much the story around the state. Lertola says 38 towns voted to raise the property tax exemption, although a few did not go up to the full $40,000. He says three more towns have promised to extend the tax benefits, while three towns voted it down.
(Lertola) "I think Vermonters across the board totally support their veterans, totally support the National Guard."
(Dillon) There is a cost to other property taxpayers from the veterans’ subsidy. In Montpelier, Lertola said, city officials estimated that a taxpayer with a $200,000 home would see a $4 annual increase in his or her property tax bill.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.