Walker County voters will likely see the issue of senior citizen property tax reform addressed by referendum on the upcoming July primary ballots.
Rossville resident Wayne Adams helped lead a small group of seniors that got the word out to petition local lawmakers to put Walkers school property tax exemption for seniors on par with neighboring Catoosa and Dade counties.
We want the voters to have the opportunity to decide on a ballot, said Adams. We hope and believe they will agree that seniors deserve a better break than the county now gives.
Walker County homeowners age 75 and above who earn less than $15,000 adjusted gross income per year are currently exempt from school property tax. The limit includes income of spouses and applies to the home and up to five acres of land.
Dade County recently enacted reform to its senior exemptions, setting the eligibility age at 65 and completely removing the maximum income cap. Catoosa County property owners are exempt from school district tax at age 75, also without a yearly income limitation.
State Rep. Martin Scott, R-Rossville, said the legislation will be filed promptly so as to make it through the current session at the Capitol.
Fellow Republicans Rep. Jay Neal of LaFayette and state Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga have pledged to help expedite the bill through the General Assembly, Scott said. All three legislators ran for office on tax-cutting platforms.
If passed and signed by the governor, the local ballot initiative would ask voters to approve or reject the exemption for seniors.
If it passes, the referendum the exemption would be granted to seniors age 70 and above who request it by an annual deadline, and would apply only to their primary residence and up to five acres. Only the first $50,000 of assessed (40 percent of market) value would be exempt.
Along with the standard homestead exemption that many seniors now get, Scott said that means most seniors 70 and above with homes valued at $150,000 or less will be completely exempt from paying school property taxes.
Rossville resident Max Greer said he is among seniors who had requested exemptions mirroring Dade County.
I dont know why we should be discriminated against here in Walker County, he said.
Scott said that he had looked at quite a few options and received many suggestions for reforming Walkers school tax exemption.
We just wanted to make sure that whatever we did was fair and doesnt hurt the children, he said. At the same time, I believe seniors deserve a break.
Neal said tax relief for seniors is an issue he has spent more time on than anything else this session.
Its a lot more complicated than anybody realizes from the outside looking in, he said, because if were not careful these efforts will result in a property tax increase on everybody else. We dont want to do something and then find out the impact is far greater than we thought, putting (the school systems) back against the wall.
According to Neal, impact studies in Catoosa County show that if the exemption age there were lowered to age 65, it would mean $1 million less for school funding.
Joe Moore, chairman of the Walker County school board, said he is sympathetic toward seniors who are hurting from tax bills, but his primary concern is for education, and he doesnt see how any senior exemption could be beneficial to the school system.
Moore pointed out that Dade Countys school system consists of four schools and about 2,500 students, compared to 15 schools and nearly 9,000 students in the Walker County system.
Walker Countys school budget is about as thin as it can be, he said. Just a few years ago, we cut 70 teachers and several programs, and there are fewer employees in the central office than 10 years ago.
But Greer said he and his wife, who worked for many years in the Birmingham, Ala., school system, have been interested in and supported schools all their life, and he just sees school boards wanting more, more, more.
My wife and I have paid our fair share and I think its about time we get a break, he said.
At age 74, Moore would himself be affected by the reform, but holds this perspective: A long time ago when there wasnt much money for schools, somebody paid the education bill for me and my whole family. The question is, whos going to pay now?
Moore says seniors should be careful what they ask for, because whatever you take from the school budget will have to be replaced, and that would likely come from a millage (tax rate) increase. That would affect seniors who own farms and other large tracts beyond the five-acre homestead exemption.
Walker County Tax Commission-er Carolyn Walker explains it with the analogy of 20 people who rent a bus for a trip which costs $200 overall.
Thats $10 each if all 20 pay, but if the driver starts giving exemptions for this passenger or that one, the cost goes up for everyone else, she said, adding that with senior exemptions it can get to be a large increase for people under the age limit.
According to Scott, the proposed exemptions would be phased in over three years beginning with the fiscal 2008 school budget, which starts in July 2007.
Scott also said the Georgia Department of Community Affairs estimated that about 800 parcels in the county would be eligible, cutting approximately $750,000 in school taxes over the three-year period.
Neal said he advocated the phased-in approach for Walker County to scale back seniors taxes without creating a property tax increase for their children and grandchildren,
Scott agrees, although in his district Dade County officials decided to enact their reform of lowering the age and removing the income cap in one fell swoop.
If you do a phase-in theres a much better possibility that growth will accommodate the elimination of seniors from the tax roll, he said.
In the end the consensus was for balance and compromise, Scott said.
This doesnt give a break for everything no one is getting everything they want, he said.
CLICK ON THESE LINKS