Voters will decide this November whether veterans can obtain a property-tax deduction even if they live in continuing-care retirement communities.
A constitutional amendment to allow an existing $250 veterans’ deduction to be expanded to include people age 60 and older living in such communities is headed to the general election ballot after the measure authorizing the question received final passage last Thursday by a unanimous Assembly.
State law provides that veterans [and their surviving spouses] who served in active duty during war and other times of emergency receive a property-tax deduction on their primary home. But the deduction only applies to a home they own and not a unit in a place like a continuing-care retirement community, where the veteran might not technically own his unit but does pay property taxes on it through a monthly fee.
Because the deduction is written into the state constitution, expanding it to cover those in the state’s 25 continuing-care retirement communities (CCCRs) — which provide housing options ranging from a traditional unit to assisted living, long-term care and other assistance if needed — requires the authorization of the voters.
‘A discriminatory process’
Getting this deduction for close to 3,000 veterans and spouses has been an 18-year quest for Gary Baldwin, a retired Air Force officer who learned that veterans lose their tax deduction upon selling his home and moving to the Seabrook Retirement Community in Tinton Falls.
“This clearly cleans up a discriminatory process that veterans have been living with for years,” said Baldwin, who is also president of the borough council in Tinton Falls. “In these facilities, we all pay taxes on the units we live in, but it’s in the name of the 501(c)(3) or private company” operating the community.
He said that in some years, the measure did not even receive a legislative hearing, while in others, it passed out of one committee or even one house, but never both. Last week, both the Senate and Assembly approved it unanimously on the same day. As a result, it will be on the November ballot, and is the only public question on the ballot so far.
The state reimburses municipalties for 102 percent of the cost of veterans tax deductions. But in the fiscal note on the bill, the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services has estimated that cost to be minimal — between $350,000 and $550,000 during each of the first three years.
“The veterans’ property tax deduction is one of the many small ways that New Jersey acknowledges our veterans for the sacrifices they have made for our country and our state,” said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), a sponsor of both the ballot question and enabling legislation. “This legislation is a simple and common-sense extension to make the tax deduction apply to all veterans equally. It’s the right thing to do.”
Sen. Fred Madden (D-Camden), another sponsor, agreed that it is the least the state can do to support those who risked their lives for the country.
“This legislation is an extension of our state’s appreciation for our veterans,” he said. “These folks, whether they own their home or not, risked their lives for this country and while $250 may not seem like a large sum, when someone is in a retirement community, often living on a fixed income, every dollar counts.”
Uncertainty in an off-election year
Baldwin, 83, had begun to wonder if he would live long enough to see his issue put to a vote. He said it pained him to have worked as legislative representative for his CCCR to get this small benefit for World War II veterans, only to see so many of them die year after year without getting the assistance.
“It’s right; it’s fair,” he said. “They’ve earned it. They are entitled to it.”
Still, the outcome is not certain. While helping veterans would seem to be popular, lawmakers expressly held back on putting other questions — most notably legalizing recreational marijuana — on the ballot this year because turnout is expected to be very low. That’s because state Assembly seats are atop the ticket. In 2015, the last time seats in the lower house were the highest office on the ballot, just 22 percent of those registered voted.
Baldwin is optimistic, but not leaving the final result to chance. He said the Organization of Residents Associations of New Jersey and the legislative sponsors plan to work to educate voters about the ballot question and urge support for it, both within CCRCs and elsewhere across the state.
“People today want to help veterans,” he said. “I just don’t see anyone not wanting to vote for it.”
Additionally, the Legislature has already passed, also unanimously, the enabling legislation to implement the extension of the veterans’ tax deduction should voters support the ballot question. Assembly approval of the bill last Thursday sent it to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for his approval.
About 180,000 veterans and their widows or widowers get a $250 veterans’ tax break each year, according to the state Department of Community Affairs’ property tax database.
The state also provides a property-tax exemption to veteran homeowners who were totally disabled during a war or other conflict, but only about 10,000 receive that benefit. CCRC residents would be eligible only for the $250 deduction.