Politics & Government

Commissioner Larry Bustle's tax exemption questioned in election year

PALMETTO -- Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle saved more than $7,000 in taxes on a home worth more than $900,000 last year by claiming a combat disability exemption.

Bustle is qualified for the exemption because he is a veteran who was injured in combat during the Vietnam War, and met all the necessary requirements of a constitutional amendment passed in 2006.

The information came to light this week after it was reported on a TV news program and published on a political rival's website.

It was meant to help older veterans on fixed incomes who are financially struggling, said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a co-sponsor of the legislation.

"I'm not going to deny the commissioner what he legally is allowed to get from the taxpayers, but my question to him is: 'Does he really need it?'" said Fasano Wednesday.

"He lives in a million-dollar home, gets a very nice salary from the taxpayers, and I imagine he has other income," said Fasano. "The intent was to help vets who are struggling."

Bustle acknowledged Wednesday that he benefitted from the exemption on his Palmetto home, but said, "I'm doing something perfectly legal, anybody who meets the criteria is eligible for this combat-related exemption."

The former fighter pilot, who was injured when he was shot down in 1968, noted there are four criteria in order to qualify: The vet must be 65 years or older and possess an honorable discharge; have been a Florida resident when he entered the military, and have a combat-related disability.

"I didn't make up the rules the VA uses, if people don't like the rules, we need to go back to legislators and get them to change them," Bustle said.

Some of Bustle's fellow commissioners disagreed.

"I personally would not take the exemption because, if I'm able to work and earn a living, I don't think that was the intent of the law," said County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino.

"Just because it's there, it doesn't mean people should take advantage of it, especially commissioners," said Commissioner Joe McClash, who is an outspoken political foe of Bustle's.

Three other people in Manatee County have claimed similar tax exemptions, but their circumstances are much more modest, according to Property Appraiser Charles Hackney.

Asked about the others who qualified, Hackney said, "The other three live in very modest homes, such as Bayshore Gardens, so their savings would be nowhere near what Commissioner Bustle saves, due to the value of his house."

Last year, Bustle saved more than $7,000 in taxes due to the combat disability exemption, according to estimates supplied by Hackney's office, and confirmed by the commissioner.

Benefitting from it and other exemptions, including another service-related exemption, Bustle paid $950.81 in taxes on a waterfront home valued at $904,436, according to the Manatee County tax collector's website.

The 4,043-square-foot home boasts a fireplace, three bedrooms, four full baths, and one half-bath, the website said.

The owner of a typical home worth $150,000 with typical homestead exemptions would pay roughly $1,650 or so in taxes, Hackney said.

In order to qualify for the veterans' exemption, Bustle had to submit proof of disability, issued by the Veteran's Administration, which is expressed in a percentage and can change from year-to-year, Hackney said.

Bustle has also qualified for the combat-related disability exemption in previous years, according to county records.

Asked whether the commissioner's tax bill was fair, Hackney replied, "I question most of the exemptions, and who gets them and why, but the Legislature and the citizens of Florida decided we should be doing something extra for these combat-wounded veterans."

"My job is to try to implement these crazy things, and not decide if they're fair or not," he said.