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County tax exemption for the disabled proposed as just

This column has recently been considering philosophical theory and contemporary practice regarding the issue of justice with respect to taxation practices. The impetus has been a county law I’m sponsoring to grant tax exemption status to disabled property owners below certain incomes. Such an exemption works by granting a property tax discount to those who qualify, while expecting the rest of the community to make up the difference.

In a day and age where class warfare is on the rise, and there is much voter angst being channeled against so-called “entitlements,” I have been looking for justification to Aristotle’s ancient discourses on justice and the role of the state. According to the Golden-Tongued Philosopher (as Cicero called him), legislators ought to decree the “justest laws” with justice defined in terms of “equality,” while also considering the advantage of the state and the common good of its citizens.

Clearly, shielding members of our community who may have spent decades or more contributing to our sense of community but who have encountered a disability and on a limited income are now unable to pay serves the common good. We do the same for our seniors via STAR rebates, as we recognize it is to everyone’s advantage to retain our elder populations. The same is true for the courage and strengths of will for those who struggle with disabilities.

Only the underlying issue of fairness remained with respect to each paying their “fair” share. Aristotle again has insight. His definition of equality is “not for all, but only for equals.” By classification those designated as “disabled” are less than equal in power or ability, although certainly not in dignity. The injustice is not in over-charging the healthy to pay for the disabled, but in refusing to acknowledge the disabled’s inferiority to pay.

In practice the economics of taxation has sought to provide equalization relief to those “unequals” due to age, disability and wealth through use of tax exemptions. One means passed initially by New York state in 1998 (and modified in 2006) has been to provide a tax exemption to property owners below a certain economic threshold owing to the fact of a disability. Each taxing authority sets their own threshold amount based upon an allowable amount set by the State Legislature. Although 11 of the county’s 22 towns have already enacted such tax relief (including Washington and Stanford) and nine of the 16 school districts (including Millbrook and Pine Plains) hitherto Dutchess County as a whole had not done so.

I was approached by a Millbrook resident earlier in the year to advance a county-wide tax exemption. At present three residents of Washington and two in Stanford out of a total of 200 people in the county benefit from this exemption on a town or school-district basis. The local law I am advancing will also provide this benefit to county taxes. It is being introduced this month and will be voted on at our May meeting, and if passed will become available starting in 2013. Residents who qualify for the STAR exemption must choose one or the other, but not both exemptions. Those who qualify for veteran’s exemptions may take both.

Clearly this exemption is in keeping with Aristotle’s purpose for government: “The state is the union of families and villages having for an end a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honorable life.”

Michael N. Kelsey represents Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.