Legislature makes it tougher for disabled first responders to get tax breaks

Florida voters gave disabled first responders living in our state a property tax break. However, state lawmakers quietly added a catch that disqualifies many who need help the most.  

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. 

When disabled first responders like Jim Bragg apply, they are 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 in 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 legislature's rules exclude first responders for different reasons. One of the most impactful exclusion 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. 

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. 

He performed undercover work in Florida, posing as a hit-man for organized crime. 

“I went as far as digging a grave for man I was supposed to kill the following morning, with the mob guy,” he said.   “I don’t know if that counts as working in Florida.”

That also does not count as first responder service in Florida because he was paid by law enforcement in New York. 

State Representative Larry Metz sponsored the rules that excluded these first responders in the House. He did not return our calls for comment. 

State Senator David Simmons attempted to remove the exclusions in this year’s legislative session, but his bill did not pass. He said he was not aware the legislature added these restrictions until after it passed. He said he will try to lift the restrictions again next year. 

“These are the most wounded of our wounded,” said Jim Bomford, a disabled first responder who campaigned for Amendment 3 and has since been denied relief despite his injuries on the job in New York. "I don’t understand a system that rushes bills through without giving people time to read them.”