Veterans tax credit faces approval in April

MERRIMACK – It was an early test of the town’s new ethics ordinance, which was designed in part to keep public officials from getting involved in areas where there might be a conflict of interest.

Selectmen’s Chairman Dick Hinch is a veteran of the U.S. armed services. As such, he receives the $100 tax credit veterans in town are eligible to receive.

But there was a proposal Thursday before the Board of Selectmen to increase that benefit to as much as $500 – and from $1,400 up to $2,000 for disabled vets. The credit allows veterans to subtract that amount from their local property tax bills.

Hinch said he didn’t know whether to recuse himself from discussions and abstain from voting. The board could not approve the tax credit increase, only vote to present a warrant article at the annual Town Meeting in April. Voters there, and not the board, would have final say.

Selectman Norman Carr told Hinch, in effect, to chill – as long as it wasn’t the board’s final call, he could participate in discussion and the vote.

After all, if the conflict of interest rule applied here, the motion would die for lack of a quorum.

“I’m a veteran too, and so is Tony,” Carr said, referring to Selectman Tony Pellegrino. “If we all abstain, there wouldn’t be a motion.”

Changes in state law gave towns the option to increase the tax credit. In the end, the board voted 5-0 to present a warrant article in April that would raise the credit to $300 for veterans and $1,800 for disabled veterans.

Selectman David McCray suggested not offering the veterans the full amount allowed under state law in order to give the warrant article more of a chance to succeed with voters. Hinch noted the amount could be increased, or decreased, at the Deliberative Session in spring.

A state law that takes effect in 2005 raises the amount of the credit to $51 to $500 and $701 to $2,000 for disabled veterans.

It also gives communities the option of implementing the credits next year.

Current credits, under state law, range from $50 to $300 for veterans and $700 to $1,400 for disabled veterans. Placing the minimum credit at $51 and $701 would force towns that offered the minimum credit to rethink the issue, said town Assessor Brett Purvis, who explained the state law change to selectmen.The credit applies only to veterans who served in the armed forces while the nation was at war or involved in an armed conflict, Purvis said.

The veteran did not have to serve in a war zone to be eligible to receive it, however, he said.

Offering the credit comes at a cost, selectmen said. The town has 1,099 eligible veterans and 27 eligible disabled veterans, and increasing the credits could mean as much as $500,000 taxpayers would have to pay.

“It’s not that the money goes away. It has to be made up somewhere,” Selectman Carolyn Whitlock said.

If cost is a concern, Purvis recommended increasing only the credit for disabled veterans.

“Having served myself and as a recipient of a tax credit, I would surely step aside and keep my $100 credit and let the disabled veterans, who have given so much more than I have, be moved to $2,000.”

In the end, selectmen agreed increasing the credit is a good idea and an appropriate way to give back to the veterans who served the country.

Other changes in state law would move up the deadline for applying for both the veterans credit and the tax credit for elderly and blind residents. That deadline would be April 15, with a window that would extend no later than Sept. 1 to make sure applications are filed before the town’s tax rate is set.