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Columbia Missourian

Disabled POWs might get tax break in Missouri

By JASON NOBLE,The Kansas City Star
September 20, 2010 | 12:01 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Perhaps never will so many people vote on something affecting so few who have given so much.

Amendment 2 on the November ballot will ask millions of Missouri voters to exempt disabled former prisoners of war from paying property taxes on their homes. Proponents call the measure a tangible token of thanks to service members who endured unimaginable hardship.

If approved, the exemption would affect about 100 ex-POWs living in Missouri.*

"This is about the welfare of those who sacrificed their livelihoods on behalf of this country," said Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a St. Louis County Democrat who sponsored the amendment.

Although no one argues that the former POWs are undeserving, the tax break duplicates existing benefits. This has led to questions about whether more people would be encouraged to lie about their military service.

If approved, the exemption would eliminate all property taxes on owner-occupied housing. To be eligible, an individual must be identified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a former prisoner of war with a total disability related to his or her military service.

Chappelle-Nadal passed the measure through the General Assembly in 2009 as a proposed constitutional amendment, qualifying it for the 2010 ballot. The idea came from a kitchen-table conversation with a constituent, she said, and would bring Missouri in line with several other states.

That constituent, Allen Sabol, was taken prisoner by the German army in World War II. He was sent to a POW camp in Poland and later forced to march hundreds of miles as the Russian army closed in from the east. Once liberated, he said, he spent a year in hospitals recuperating from the ordeal.

Former prisoners of war aren't seeking charity, Sabol said, just recognition for their service and the experiences that set them apart from other veterans.

"If this passes, it's going to be quite a savings to us," said Sabol, who lives in the St. Louis suburb of University City. "We'll be very thankful for it."

Ed Slater, an Independence man held captive during the Korean War, likewise acknowledged that the exemption would help former POWs living on fixed incomes. But he was disappointed in how long it has taken to secure the benefit.

A group of former POWs who meet weekly at the VA hospital in Kansas City has shrunk from more than 60 a few years ago to only about 20 today, he said. At 80 years old, Slater said he was the youngest in the group.

"They keep putting it off, and these guys are dying off like crazy," said Slater, who made five or six annual trips to Jefferson City in support of the issue. "We're trying to get it through before they all die."

A cost estimate compiled during the legislative process estimated that 200 totally disabled former POWs lived in Missouri in 2007. Using data on average owner-occupied housing rates, the legislative "fiscal note" estimated that about 141 of these veterans owned homes and would benefit from the exemption.

That estimate, however, may overstate the number of people who could take advantage of the tax exemption as more aging veterans pass away.

An existing property-tax credit is already available for disabled former POWs. The "circuit-breaker" tax credit reimburses Missourians 65 and older and totally disabled individuals for up to $1,100 in taxes owed on their homes nearly 95 percent of the average residential tax bill in the state. The credit is available only to individual homeowners with income below $30,000 and couples reporting less than $34,000 although veterans' benefits are not included in that calculation.

Although the number of eligible recipients is small and dwindling, people claiming benefits they don't deserve is large and growing.

Cases of individuals trying to claim POW status or inflate the extent of their disabilities is a serious and costly problem, said Mary Schantag, founder of the POW Network, a nonprofit group that tracks down people who falsify their military service.

Additional resources for legitimate veterans tend to inspire fakers.

"Impersonation, exaggerated claims and false claims are an epidemic," Schantag said. "It's a huge problem, and this is one more step toward that."

The enforcement issue could be especially complicated because it is unclear what level of government will be responsible for administering and enforcing the provisions of the property tax exemption.

Chappelle-Nadal, the legislative sponsor, said she thought the state's Department of Revenue would handle the exemptions and that its established mechanisms for verifying eligibility would ensure only qualified veterans received the tax break.

The department, however, is concerned.

Because the measure simply exempts disabled POWs from paying locally administered property taxes rather than offering them a credit on their state taxes administration and enforcement will fall entirely on local jurisdictions, said spokesman Ted Farnen.

"There will be no administrative duties as far as the Department of Revenue is concerned," he noted in a statement.

Despite the delays, complications and limited effect, veterans groups and lawmakers are convinced the amendment is the right thing to do.

"I do think it is a nice thing to honor veterans," said Eugene Wopata, a prisoner of war in World War II who lives in Independence. "These are a special kind of veterans."