Korean War veteran battling with Morristown over benefits

Korean War veteran Livio (Lee) Colantone, 91, says Morristown is withholding tax refunds to which he's entitled as a disabled vet. The town says it's followed the letter of the law. Photo by Tyler Barth.
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By Tyler Barth

On Veterans Day, as Americans honor the men and women who have served their country, one old soldier is feeling dishonored by Morristown officials.

Livio Colantone, who goes by Lee, is a 91-year-old Korean War veteran from Morristown’s Third Ward.

His hearing and eyesight are poor and his knees are weak. He walks with difficulty and no longer drives. But his mind remains strong and his wit, fiery.

For the last few years, the Bronze Star medal recipient unsuccessfully has sought a refund of $40,000 in property taxes as a fully disabled veteran.

“I served in North Korea for nine months on the battlefield,” as a Private First Class in the Army, Colantone said. “I spent a lot of time in the bunkers, and so on and so forth.”

Colantone served in the Chorwon Valley at the southern end of North Korea, near the current demilitarized zone. Before that, he volunteered as a subject for Army nerve gas experiments.

He was so shaken by the carnage he saw in Korea that he had to take a year off when he returned to the states, to get his bearings.

Settling in Morristown, Colantone married and later found work as a real estate broker, a position he held for more than 30 years prior to his retirement.

In March 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs classified him as totally disabled from wartime-related conditions. Colantone said he has attempted to claim his tax refund ever since.

Under 2013 New Jersey Revised Statutes Title 54 Section 54:4-3.32, the law Colantone is citing as his argument, municipal governments can pass resolutions returning all taxes collected on property that would have been exempt had a proper claim in writing been made.

Colantone says this refund would help he and his wife pay their bills. They live in a simple yet cluttered house, with a stairlift to assist him up and down the stairwells.

“The governing body of each municipality, by appropriate resolution, may also return to the veteran or the veteran’s surviving spouse all property tax payments made since the time of the veteran’s actual disability or since the time of the veteran’s death,” the statute continues.

According to Morristown officials, Colantone sent them an exemption letter in August 2018, and a resolution granting him the exemption from that point forward was approved by the town council at its meeting of Sept. 25, 2018.

Municipalities have discretion to extend refunds back to when a veteran is declared disabled, said Paul Kale of the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. In Colantone’s case, that would be 2013.

“Some municipalities are more lenient than others, but some do stick to the letter of the law,” Kale said via email.

Kenneth Hagemann, state adjutant of the New Jersey Veterans of Foreign Wars, explained that such a tax refund would be a burden on a municipality, and that some veterans spend years fighting to claim the benefit.

“He’s not the only person this has happened to,” Hagemann said of Colantone.

Jillian Barrick, Morristown’s town Administrator, said she was unaware of any cases in Morristown or nearby towns where refunds were granted retroactively to the date of disability.

Colantone thinks he deserves better.

“Why don’t they want to respect me? That’s what pisses me off,” Colantone said.

Veterans Day Services are scheduled for today, Nov. 11, 2019, at 10:15 a.m. at the Morris Township Municipal Building, 50 Woodland Ave., and at 11 am on the Morristown Green. If it rains, joint services will be held inside the Morris Township Municipal Building meeting room.

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