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MorgueFile

AUSTIN — Kim Woodard Holmes, a severely disabled Air Force veteran, is tapped out. She struggles to survive as a single mother of four, and stands to lose her home in Arlington to rising property taxes she cannot afford.

“I’m going through my savings,” said Homes, who retired from the Air Force in 2005 as a lieutenant colonel following a head-on car wreck while reporting for duty. “It’s at a point I have to sell because I can’t find a job.”

At age 55, Homes, who uses a walker and a wheelchair, is one of 58,000 Texas veterans who the government classifies as severely disabled, meaning they are 80 percent or more physically handicapped. Many say they are finding it increasingly hard to stay in their homes for lack of employment opportunities and insufficient personal finances.

Veterans in this category do get limited property tax relief under Texas law, but only those that are 100 percent disabled receive total exemption from paying property taxes.

State Rep.  Rick Miller, Naval Academy graduate and former pilot, says this is unfair to the men and women who have served their country and ended up severely if not totally disabled. He’s introduced legislation (HB3002) to tie property tax relief to the degree of severe disability.

To take effect, the proposal must be passed by the Texas Legislature and approved as an amendment to the state constitution by voters.

In a state with 1.5 million veterans, among the highest in the country, it would seem a slam-dunk out of respect for military service members who have either been severely wounded in war or in other service-connected circumstances while discharging their duty to country.

But it isn’t, according to supporters of the measure.

P.J. Putnam, a Dallas attorney and writer of the Miller bill, said many of the 58,000 severely disabled Texas veterans are barely hanging on to their homes by skimping on other necessities. Putnam is an Air Force veteran who is 100 percent disabled.

“We’ve got vets who are making a decision, ‘Should I buy groceries or pay my taxes?’” he said.  “But there are only so many meals you can skip.”

Veterans like the Navy combat veteran from the Dallas area who fought the war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan for seven years before wounds left him 90 percent disabled, his range of arm motion severely limited.

“All my joints hurt pretty much all the time,” said the wounded warrior, who asked that his identity be withheld to avoid becoming known to terrorists who might target him. “You just play through the pain."

There are varying degrees of property tax relief offered disabled military veterans in other states,  but Texas remains reluctant to extend its current level of relief as tax assessors fear it could result in shifting of local tax burden to other property owners.

Jim Brennan, legislative director of the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations, said a similar proposal last legislative session sought broader exemptions for the severely disabled, and ended up in the molasses of the lawmaking process, never getting to a floor vote.

“Whether it’s doable this session is another matter,” said Brennan. “Legislators are going to get opposition from tax appraisers not to do this.”

Ender Reed, legislative liaison for the Texas Association of Counties, said his organization is supportive of veterans “but in the time of great sensitivity to property taxes, it is important to know that great ideas come at a cost.”

In other words, Reed added, “if you neighbor has an exemption, you’re paying for it.”

Former Air Force pilot Scott O’Grady said there is a tradeoff, but it is not a costly one. He said the property tax relief would be shared only by a severely disabled veteran’s spouse and no other family members in the event of death.

“To be a free person is to own your own land,” said O’Grady, whose Air Force F-16 was shot down over Bosnia in 1995. He survived for six days until being rescued by a team of U.S. Marines.

O’Grady said he trained with 80 percent disabled Kim Holmes early in their Air Force careers and is doing whatever he can to get her the property tax relief she deserves.

Holmes said she paid $323,000 two years ago for a “comfortable” 4,000-square-foot, five-bedroom home in Arlington. During that time, she said, her property taxes rose from $3,400 per year to about $7,800.  She said the 80 percent exemption would save her enough money to stay in her home instead of moving to a state with lower property taxes.

As a seventh generation Texas who grew up in Cleburne, she does not want to move away, and hopes the Texas Legislature will give voters an chance to weigh in on the tax relief measure for severely disabled veterans.

“I know it’s asking a lot,” she said. “It’s not owned us. But I did sacrifice a lot for the 23 years I was in the Air Force. It would be a great thing.”

CNHI State John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse. Contact him at jaustin@cnhi.com

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