Shaler couple in dispute with school district over tax exemption for disabled veterans

Robert Reichle spent three years in the US Army during the Vietnam war, including 11 months in-country as a combat correspondent for the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

Although he was never wounded during his service — and jokes that the only thing he ever killed was a tree — Reichle was exposed to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide used by the US military to clear leaves and vegetation.

Exposure to the chemical can lead to a number of medical conditions, including diabetes and heart disease. Reichle suffers from both conditions.

By 2008, he was declared 100% permanently disabled by the Veteran’s Administration, qualifying him for exemption from all real estate property taxes.

The problem, though, is that Reichle, 72, didn’t learn about the exemption until 2018. He applied for it, and it was granted for all taxes owed by him moving forward.

But the Shaler Area School District, where Reichle has lived with his wife Linda since 1977, said he is not entitled to relief for back taxes that they owe.

The district filed a tax lien against the couple in 2017 alleging nearly $13,000 in unpaid taxes from 2011 through 2015 — later adding years 2016 through 2018. Including fees and interest, Reichle’s attorney said this week that the amount owed to the district is now closer to $20,000.

By December 2019, after the court had entered a default judgment against the couple, the district filed a notice to have the Reichle’s house sold at sheriff’s sale.

The Reichles objected, filing notice that, under the state Constitution, his 100% disability exempted them from having to pay any real estate taxes. They then filed their own lawsuit against the school district for failing to honor that provision.

Their case is scheduled to go to trial in September. In the meantime, the sheriff’s sale has been repeatedly postponed pending the outcome of the court case.

“Usually, everybody bends over backward to honor veterans,” said the Reichles’ attorney John Arch. “I don’t understand why they have this approach.”

According to the Pennsylvania Constitution, any resident “who served in any war or armed conflict in which the United States was engaged… shall be exempt from the payment of all real property taxes.”

To be exempt, the resident must meet several requirements, including having been honorably discharged; 100% disabled, and found by the State Veterans Commission to be in financial need of the exemption.

In Reichle’s case, he has met all of those requirements, Arch said. I applied for exemption in 2018, and it was granted.

However, when he approached the Shaler Area School District seeking to have his past due taxes exempted, as well, Reichle was told the exemption doesn’t cover tax debt already accrued.

John Vogel, the school district’s attorney in the case, did not return messages seeking comment.

In court filings, however, the district said that the Pennsylvania Code governing military affairs provides that the property tax exemption applies “on or after the date the applicant first files a written request for an exemption.”

In this case, Reichle applied for the exemption on June 30, 2018.

“To argue that the exemption applies to taxes owed prior to the application date is ludicrous,” the school district wrote.

Arch and his clients disagree.

“The constitutional provision says ‘all,’” Arch said.

In his lawsuit, Reichle’s attorney said that the constitutional provision is a “blanket grant of exemption” that makes it clear he is exempt from the payment of “all real property taxes.”

“The blanket, all-encompassing wording of the Constitutional provision has no language limiting the exemption from retroactive taxes, prospective taxes, annual taxes or any other permutation,” the lawsuit said.

Arch said that the Pennsylvania Code cannot limit what is provided by the Constitution.

Bruce Antkowiak, who teaches constitutional law at Saint Vincent College, said that the state legislature has the authority to create statutes to help carry out constitutional provisions, but they cannot limit the provisions’ intent.

“What they cannot do, by mere legislation, they cannot circumscribe, limit or otherwise change a constitutional interpretation the courts have given,” he said.

In this case, Antkowiak said the courts will decide the issue based on the way the provision is worded.

“You take the words in their normal meaning,” he said. “The courts interpreted the Constitution liberally for the benefit of the people it was intended.”

Arch said that “all means all.”

“There is nothing that permits the legislature or any bureaucracy to change that,” he said.

Although Sean Aiken, Shaler’s superintendent, declined an interview request, he said in a statement that the Reichles have been delinquent in their taxes for several years.

“By state law, the exemption operates prospectively and did not affect the Reichles’ responsibility for prior, delinquent taxes,” Aiken said in the statement.

Reichle, who worked as an attorney before retiring because of his medical issues — which include some cognitive impairment — said that the back taxes began to accumulate in the mid-1990s when he and his wife had to care for their aging parents.

The fact that Reichle is seeking the exemption for back taxes just shows he has a much greater need than others might have, Arch said.

Although the school district has offered a payment plan to the couple, the Reichles said, they have not offered to forgive any of the past taxes.

Desperate to get help, Reichle, this month, sent letters to each Shaler school board member explaining his position and asking for their help.

In the letters, he explains the circumstances of the dispute.

“I write this letter to personally ask that you exercise grace and afford me my Constitutional rights,” he said.

The reference to grace is actually part of the same section of the Pennsylvania Code cited by the school district that provides the effective date for the exemption.

In the section titled “Grace,” the code reads: “(b)Grace. This section does not prohibit or discourage taxing authorities from granting tax exemptions to qualified disabled veterans as a matter of grace irrespective of the date upon which the veteran applies for the exemption.”

Reichle said that he has not heard back from any of the board members.

Board President April Kwiatkowski and Vice President James Tunstall did not return messages seeking comment.

Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paula by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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