FOX 13 investigation inspires bill to support disabled first responders

Florida voters gave disabled first responders a tax break. Then a FOX 13 investigation found state lawmakers added exclusions that disqualify many who need help the most. Now state lawmakers are responding to our reports with legislation to lift the restrictions and grant the tax relief as written on the ballot. 

In 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 3. Based on the language on the ballot, first responders living in Florida are supposed to get an exemption on their property taxes if they are permanently and totally disabled due to injuries sustained in the line of duty. 

However, when disabled first responders like Jim Bragg applied, they were rejected, because the legislature added additional restrictions in the enabling legislation. 

Bragg was a police officer in South Carolina who sustained serious physical injuries and a brain injury when his motorcycle crashed during a police chase.   

"No property tax relief at all. In fact, my taxes have gone up the past couple of years," said Bragg. "They didn’t tell anybody they changed the rules in midstream. They didn’t publicize it so nobody knows.”

The enabling legislation states individuals only qualify if they were employed and working in Florida at the time of their injuries — excluding all who were disabled elsewhere then retired in Florida.

The wording of Amendment 3 provided relief for “first responders living in Florida,” not limiting eligibility to those who were injured while serving in other states. 

However, FOX 13 met with several first responders who are permanently and totally disabled according to the U.S. Social Security Administration who have been denied the tax break under Florida’s Amendment 3. 

That includes an undercover officer who was assigned to cleaning the soot and debris from the September 11th attacks at the World Trade Center. He said he was sickened and disabled by the toxins, but because he was afflicted through service in New York, then moved to Florida, the legislature disqualified him -- even though he also performed undercover work in Florida, posing as a hit-man for organized crime. 

Another former New York officer Jim Bomford was also exposed to toxins in New York. In addition, a criminal dragged him from a car and crushed his legs. Now his legs are in braces and his arms shake uncontrollably. 

Former New York officer Joe Johnson was sitting in his police car when it was rammed by a truck. Then he was rammed again on his way to get treatment. 

"A woman ran a stop sign doing about 50 or 60 and hit us broadside," Johnson recalled. "I sustained about 80-90 fractures, my lungs were punctured [and] my hips were broken."

After he was denied property tax relief under Amendment 3, Johnson found a couple of hundred other disabled Florida residents -- who were injured responding to fires, shootings and terrorist attacks -- who were also denied.  

“When they went in those buildings and found people, they didn't say, 'Excuse me, where do you live? Oh, you live in Florida. Sorry, I can’t help you,'" he said. 

Pasco Property Appraiser Gary Joiner said he and other property appraisers across the state were blindsided when the legislature added the disqualifications. 

"I can tell you I thought I missed something," said Joiner, whose office could only approve six of 52 applications in his office due to the legislature’s exclusions. “I think it is kind-of misleading to everybody."

When we reached out to state lawmakers from both chambers, we discovered some did not realize the bill they passed had the effect of disqualifying these disabled responders. 

In the flood of bills that came up for rapid-fire votes, some thought this bill implemented the amendment as written on the ballot for disabled first responders living in Florida. 

“I was very disappointed when you told me today. That anybody from New York or anywhere else cannot get the tax break,” said State Rep. John Cortes, (D) Kissimmee. "My six bills are gone. If I knew the senate needed a sponsor, I would have dropped one of my bills and gladly taken that one, because that’s a no brainer.”

State Senator David Simmons attempted to remove the exclusions in last year’s legislative session, but his bill did not pass. He is trying again to lift the restrictions again this year. 

Meanwhile, Hillsborough Representative Adam Hattersley watched our previous FOX 13 investigation and said it prompted him to pursue legislation in the Florida House. 

“We started digging into it… I was frankly shocked," he said. “I was disappointed that we would just supersede the clear will of the voters, that we would even consider treating veterans and first responders this way.”

Simmons, a Republican, and Hattersley, a Democrat, are now leading a bi-partisan push to reverse what we exposed and give first responders the help they say they deserve. 

“They deserve those protections and it is expressly what the voters voted for. There is no stipulation it had to be in Florida,” said Rep. Hattersley. “We owe them more than that. Once we're made aware of it, we have to… try to fix it for citizens of Florida."