Thursday April 26, 2012
It may have seemed like an insurmountable undertaking, but after four years of advocating for tax exemption increases for disabled veterans in towns across Vermont, South Burlington resident Lou Lertola has succeeded in securing property tax relief for more than 2,100 fellow service men and women. April 18th, the state legislature honored the former state command sergeant major who remains focused on completing the mission for all vets.
The Other Paper introduced Lertola in feature stories beginning in March 2007. His campaign in support of veterans began in 2007, two years after the passage of Act 207 which allowed a property tax exemption increase for qualifying disabled veterans from $10,000, enacted in 1977, or $20,000, enacted in 1991, to a maximum of $40,000. The law however was not state mandated and so, required voter approval in every town and city.
One visit from this disabled veteran of the Korean War Era to the South Burlington City Council was all it took to persuade members to bring the issue before the voters. The exemption increase was approved in May 2008.
“I thought I could make a difference in other towns,” said the 77-year-old retired Vermont National Guardsman. “I didn’t realize it was going to get so big.”
And so began the journey, taking Lertola 5,000 miles through every county to the 246 towns and cities in the Green Mountain State. Prepared with facts and figures and formulas to calculate the impact of the exemption increase on property owners – often just pennies per year – Lertola paid visits to select boards and city councils urging action.
Most, he claimed, were persuaded because it was the right thing to do.
When challenged, Lertola engaged the local media and community, writing letters and obtaining signed petitions to force the issue to a vote. His plan to “pick away” at the towns succeeded. In his first year, 11 of the 12 towns he visited approved the exemption increase. Today, 95.2% of the qualified Vermont disabled veterans living in Vermont now receive the $40,000 property tax deduction.
“They deserve it,” Lertola said simply of the exemption increase which now lowers the property tax burden of 2,146 disabled veterans. “Who wants to live at what they were living at in 1977? It makes a big difference for them.”
Lertola is calling in reinforcements to tackle the 27 towns which still remain below the maximum exemption. With support from American Legions, Veterans of Foreign War and Disabled American Veterans, he hopes to secure the tax exemption increase for an additional 108 veterans.
In 2010, Lertola received the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Community Service in recognition of his work to enable disabled veterans to remain homeowners. Last week, the Vermont Senate and House of Representatives honored Lertola during the General Assembly for his service on behalf of disabled veterans.
“His pursuit of property tax exemptions for veterans with disabilities throughout the state is tireless,” said State Representative Helen Head, chair of the General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee. ”I truly admire his persuasive efforts to reach the 100% community participation mark.”
While Lertola appreciates the public recognition, it certainly doesn’t drive him. The man who sports the T-shirt that reads, Real heroes don’t wear capes, they wear dog tags, exemplifies honor and service from his core.
“Deep down I’m proud of it,” said Lertola who doesn’t personally know any of the disabled veterans his work has helped. “I’ve enjoyed it.”
SOURCE: Lisa Osbahr, Correspondent