Lobbying to get spouses of fallen heroes a break

Essex man pushes for tax relief for families of officers, firefighters

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July 31, 2005|By Danny Jacobs | Danny Jacobs,SUN STAFF

Frank Micriotti boarded a plane in May for the first time since 1976. It was a small commuter plane, with rows of three seats divided by a narrow aisle.

"I said to myself, `Man, this is crazy,'" he said, recalling his nervousness about traveling on the aircraft. "And I'm by myself, and no one is next to me to give me reassurance."

If Micriotti needed peace of mind, he could remember the reason for his flight, a cause inspired by the death of a stranger five years ago. As part of his effort to secure breaks on property tax for the spouses of fallen police officers and firefighters across the nation, Micriotti embarked on a 20-day, cross-country trip to thank the lawmakers who took up the effort and to encourage them to see it through.

"I'm not the guy who's accomplishing this," the 61-year-old retired truck driver from Essex said. "I guess I would call myself the messenger who is sharing some information, and these good folks are kind enough to pick it up."

Prompted by the 2000 killing of Baltimore County police Sgt. Bruce A. Prothero, Micriotti helped push for legislation in Maryland two years ago that would allow jurisdictions to give full or partial property tax exemptions to spouses of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty. Since then, he has made contacts across the country to lobby for similar laws.

Maryland and South Carolina are the only states that give exemptions to spouses of police and firefighters, he said. Legislation has either been introduced or will be introduced in California, Massachusetts, Vermont, Texas, Oregon and Washington, according to officials.

Given the risk police and firefighters face - and the public interest in attracting and retaining quality employees in public safety - a property-tax break is a small consideration, Micriotti said.

The first stop on his trip was South Carolina, the state whose legislation was used by Micriotti as a model for Maryland's law, for an update on how the law there was working out.

Then, in Texas, Micriotti met with state Sen. Bob Deuell. Micriotti was sitting in the Senate gallery in Austin as Deuell introduced Micriotti and told his story. A standing ovation for Micriotti followed.

"I'm shy in a lot of ways, but when that happened, I was really shaking in my boots," he said.

The idea received support, and Deuell plans to submit a bill in the next legislative session, said aide Matt Wolff. Wolff said he tells constituents of Micriotti's effort as proof that lobbyists and politicians aren't the only ones who can bring change.

"Frank's someone who had a good idea and picked up the phone," Wolff said.

Eventually Micriotti made his way to California. There he met with an aide to state Sen. Dean Florez, who introduced legislation in February. Rod Brewer, a Florez staffer, said hearings on the bill are expected in January.

In Maryland, 11 counties and Baltimore have some form of the benefit in place. Although the specifics vary by jurisdiction, most offer a full exemption from property taxes anywhere from five years to the rest of the spouse's life.

Officer Anthony Taylor of the Baltimore County Police Department has seen the benefits firsthand. His fiancee's former husband was a Maryland state trooper killed in 1995. After the state legislation passed, Lisa Lanzi helped push for the exemption in Cecil County, a benefit that frees up money she can use to pay for college tuition for her three children, Taylor said.

"It's so unusual to see someone pushing this out of the goodness of his heart," he said.

Micriotti plans to keep at it. He is going to meet Pennsylvania legislators in Harrisburg in September and is planning a trip to thank legislators in New England states.

"It makes me realize that one person can make a difference, regardless of what your background is," he said. "I don't care what you're education is - if you have time and you are committed to something, anything is possible."

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