Ex-Lawmaker Says He Can Legally Claim Property Tax Break

November 22, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Tax BillFor the past 20 years, former state lawmaker Arnold Goodstein has been the attorney for the Charleston County Aviation Authority.

Over the last two fiscal years, the authority paid Goodstein $235,000 in legal fees each year, according to agency records provided to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. From the start of this fiscal year on July 1 through Oct. 30, Goodstein received $74,750 from the authority, records show.

On Thursday, the Charleston Post and Courier reported that the 13-member authority voted to seek an employment lawyer’s opinion about whether the agency should seek bids for legal services, and that a three-member panel recommended before the full board meeting that Goodstein receive a yearly flat fee of $265,000.

Goodstein’s wife, Diane Goodstein, a state circuit judge since 1998, earns $134,221 annually.

The legal power couple, however, are exempted this year from paying property taxes on their Summerville home, valued for tax purposes at more than $750,000, county and state records show. Their county tax bill shows only a charge of $198.94 for storm water and solid waste fees.

The state Department of Revenue on Jan. 25 granted Arnold Goodstein an exemption from paying property taxes under a state law (Section 12-37-220(B1A) of the S.C. Code of Laws) that gives the break to a “veteran of the armed forces of the United States who is permanently and totally disabled as a result of a service-connected disability,” according to a DOR document provided by Dorchester County under the Freedom of Information Act.

The exemption applies to a house “owned by an eligible owner in fee or jointly with a spouse.”

Under the state law, “permanently and totally disabled” means the “inability to perform substantial gainful employment by reason of a medically determinable impairment, either physical or mental, that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of twelve months or more or result in death.”

Contacted Thursday by The Nerve, the 69-year-old Goodstein, who served in the S.C. House from 1971-74 and the Senate from 1975-1980, representing Charleston County as a Democrat, acknowledged he works full time as an attorney but maintained he can legally claim the property tax exemption.

“The statute is controlled by what the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) finds – nothing else,” he said. “Federal law pre-empts state law. The state law adopts the VA definition of this.”

Goodstein, however, could not immediately cite a state law that specifically mentions the VA definition.

Goodstein was a U.S. Army armored cavalry officer and combat advisor to the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, and was wounded during the 1968 Tet offensive, according to his official biography printed in the Legislative Manual when he was a lawmaker. He was twice awarded the Bronze Star, according to his biography.

Goodstein provided The Nerve with a copy of a 1968 military notification that he had been awarded a Bronze Star for “heroism in connection with military operations against a hostile force” in Vietnam that year.

Goodstein said the VA in January 2012 determined that he was “100 percent permanently and totally disabled.” He said he has “arthritic hips and knees,” and “some heart problems,” and was “exposed to Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War.

The medical determination by the VA was the basis of the DOR’s decision to grant the property tax exemption, Goodstein said. DOR spokeswoman Samantha Cheek did not respond Thursday to written questions from The Nerve.

Contacted Thursday, Ed Burns, Dorchester County’s veterans affairs officer, told The Nerve that Goodstein presented his office with a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs letter determining that Goodstein was “100 percent permanently and totally disabled,” and that his office helped Goodstein prepare the DOR application for the property tax exemption.

“We’re the middleman,” Burns said.

State law requires that a veteran seeking the exemption file with the DOR a “certificate signed by the county service officer certifying this disability.”

Burns said he didn’t know whether his office had a copy of the VA letter that Goodstein presented for the exemption. Asked if his office typically keeps copies of those letters, he replied, “It depends – sometimes yes, sometimes no.”

When questioned about the legal definition of Goodstein’s disability, Burns said under federal law, “you can actually have a job and make whatever,” adding that state law “doesn’t address that as far as I know.”

Burns said his office doesn’t keep statistics on the number of veterans in Dorchester County who seek the property tax exemption, though he noted the number has grown in recent years with “a lot of people moving from the North.”

County property tax records show that in recent years, the Goodsteins paid about $7,000 annually in taxes on their Summerville home. Arnold Goodstein told The Nerve that he couldn’t claim the tax exemption in earlier years because although the VA had determined that he was “70, 80, 90 percent” disabled, he wasn’t classified then as “100 percent” disabled.

County register of deeds records provided to The Nerve under the Freedom of Information Act show that Diane Goodstein in November 2012 transferred a 1 percent interest in their Summerville home to her husband. Arnold Goodstein told The Nerve that he is entitled to claim the property tax exemption as long as their home is his primary residence, and he has a legal interest in it.

He also said this year’s exemption applies to two vehicles in addition to their home.

As for his high-profile job representing the Aviation Authority, Goodstein said that “where I work and how much I earn had nothing to do” with the VA’s medical determination of his disability.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.