'Unfair' tax break has some up in arms - FOX 13 News

'Unfair' tax break has some up in arms

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

Florida voters wanted to provide veterans from our state with an extra benefit, so they passed Amendment 7 back in 2006.

It provides an additional discount on property tax for veterans wounded in combat and permanently disabled.

FOX 13 learned few in the Bay area have taken advantage of this benefit. In fact, in 2011 just 41 people in Pinellas County received the Disabled Veterans' Property Tax Discount. In other counties, the number was even smaller.

Just 25 in Hillsborough County received the discount, Sarasota County did not have any vets who received the aid and Manatee County had just four.

To qualify for the discount, a veteran must be at least 65 years old, a Florida resident at the time of entering military service with a combat related injury that left them permanently disabled.

The veteran must also be honorably discharged. The discount on homestead property taxes will be equal to the percentage of the disability as determined by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Records reveal the discount usually saves qualifying veterans several hundred dollars, but one veteran is saving thousands of dollars.

Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle's tax bill was reduced by about $7,900 dollars in 2011, according to Scott Tussing, who's the assessment compliance coordinator with the Property Appraisers Office.

"I was a fighter pilot in Vietnam and I got shot down. I got injured pretty badly, both shoulders and both knees broken, and it took me six months to get back on flying status," Bustle said.

Those injuries - along with hearing loss - have left Bustle 90 percent disabled and qualified him for the benefit, which he has received the past five years. In 2010, his luxurious home on the Manatee River was valued at just over $1 million.

That year he received a 90 percent discount, which explains why his tax bill was just $905 dollars.

"There are a lot of things I can't do," Bustle said. "I can't do anything much above my shoulder level."

But his disabilities have not prevented him from earning a salary as the Mayor of Palmetto and now as a Manatee County Commissioner.

"I was shocked, I was surprised," said Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino.

She had never noticed Bustle's disabilities. She believes it's important to honor veterans but is also concerned about dropping property tax revenue in the county.

She thinks Commissioner Bustle should decline the discount even though he qualifies because property taxes help pay the majority of his $75,000 annual salary.

"We are elected to public office to serve the people and are held to a higher standard. If I weren't able to earn a living and support myself that would be one thing, but being physically able to go to work and earn a living, that's different."

Commissioner DiSabatino says she would not accept the discount even if she qualified.

"I don't think it is fair or is right, and I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I did that," she said.

State Senator Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, feels the same way. He helped create the legislation that became Amendment 7.

Fasano said it was designed to help struggling vets keep their houses, not to benefit those living in luxurious waterfront homes. He believes Bustle is violating the spirit of the law.

"Just common sense should tell you that person should not be taking advantage of it, even though they are due it, they don't need it," Fasano said. "Multi-millionaires should not be collecting social security, and to me this is no different."

Commissioner Bustle hasn't always received a 90 percent discount. His disability rating has bounced around from a low of 70 percent in 2007 to a high of 100 percent in 2008 when his knees were replaced.

At that time, the market value of his home was $1,297,808 and he paid just $122 in property taxes. He doesn't see a problem with accepting the discount.

"I served my country and my state decided this was a valid thing to do so I'm quite happy with it," he said.

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