Homestead ref­er­en­dum on the bal­lot

Mea­sure would af­fect se­niors cit­i­zens earn­ing $25k or less

The Covington News - - Front Page - By Rachel Oswald

In all of the ex­cite­ment over the pres­i­den­tial and county races, New­ton County vot­ers are re­minded that they will also be asked to con­sider an ex­panded se­nior ci­ti­zen homestead tax ex­emp­tion when they cast their bal­lots in the gen­eral elec­tion.

The bal­lot mea­sure asks vot­ers whether the se­nior ci­ti­zen homestead ex­emp­tion should be ex­panded to $30,000 of the as­sessed value of the homes for se­niors over 65 whose in­comes are equal to or less than $25,000.

The cur­rent homestead ex­emp­tion for se­niors is for those whose in­comes are less than $15,000 and it is for only $20,000 of the as­sessed value of their homes.

If the homestead ex­emp­tion is passed, it will likely mean a tax shift for oth­ers in the county. With the coun­try in an eco­nomic re­ces­sion and the state faced with a $1.6 bil­lion to $2 bil­lion bud­get short­fall, the ques­tion of whether the county can af­ford a tax cut at this time is

a press­ing one. “There’s noway to re­duce taxes over­all if you pro­vide the same level of ser­vices,” said District 1 Com­mis­sioner Mort Ewing­whois not op­pos­ing the mea­sure. “You’re merely shift­ing that bur­den from one seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion to an­other.” Ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by the New­ton County Tax As­ses­sor’s Of­fice, if the homestead ex­emp­tion were in­creased to $26,000, it would re­sult in a min­i­mal $310,192 loss in prop­erty tax rev­enue to the county. The real amount of lost rev­enue would be higher if the bal­lot mea­sure passes be­cause it is for a $30,000 ex­emp­tion and not a $26,000 ex­emp­tion. Cur­rently 3,188 house­holds in the county qual­ify for the se­nior ci­ti­zen homestead ex­emp­tion. That num­ber would stay the same if the bal­lot mea­sure passes. But over time as more and more baby boomers reach 65, the num­ber of qual­i­fy­ing se­niors will likely bal­loon. Chief Tax As­ses­sor Tommy Knight es­ti­mated that if an ad­di­tional 500 house­holds qual­i­fied un­der a $26,000 ex­emp­tion, there would be an ad­di­tional $126,490 rev­enue loss. Th­ese fig­ures as­sume the county’s mill­age rate of 9.73 mills re­mains the same. The New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers voted 3-2 to put the homestead mea­sure on the bal­lot in Fe­bru­ary. Ewing and District 5 Com­mis­sioner Monty Laster op­posed the mo­tion. At the Fe­bru­ary BOC meet­ing, Ewing said he did not be­lieve the board had been given enough time to con­sider the in­for­ma­tion given to them that night by the Tax As­ses­sor’s Of­fice. District 4 Com­mis­sioner J.C. Hen­der­son, who had first pro­posed the mo­tion, said he felt like the board had had enough time to con­sider it and pushed for a vote that night. On Fri­day, Ewing said the rea­son he had op­posed putting the mea­sure on the bal­lot was that he had ex­pected the Ge­or­gia Gen­eral As­sem­bly to take up the is­sue of ex­pand­ing the ex­emp­tion for se­niors dur­ing their 2008 ses­sion, which they didn’t. He said he didn’t want any­thing the county did to con­tra­vene any ac­tions by the state. “I think it will pass if those [se­nior cit­i­zens] feel that they need and de­serve that ex­emp­tion,” Ewing said. Frank Davis, pres­i­dent of New­ton County Cit­i­zens for Tax Re­lief who has lead the ef­fort to ex­pand homestead ex­emp­tions for se­niors, said he be­lieves de­spite the eco­nomic re­ces­sion, the tim­ing is still right to give se­nior cit­i­zens a tax break. “The se­niors are hurt­ing just like ev­ery­body else ex­cept maybe more be­cause they don’t get any breaks,” said Davis who said he did not in­clude So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care in that state­ment. “We prob­a­bly paid for that years ago and we’re just get­ting back what we’re [pay­ing] in.” Davis said what has re­ally hurt se­niors in the county has been the “rapid in­crease in home eval­u­a­tions.” He said since 2000 his prop­erty taxes have dou­bled while his salary has not changed. “[Se­niors] don’t have any op­por­tu­nity tomake more­money,” Davis said. “Our in­come can only go down when they raise taxes.” Davis said he is en­cour­ag­ing all se­niors in the county to vote in sup­port of the mea­sure and has sent out e-mail mes­sages on the mat­ter to all of his con­tacts. He ac­knowl­edged that the pas­sage of the mea­sure will likely mean a small tax in­crease for those home­own­ers in the county who are not se­niors. “It will have the af­fect of mak­ing a small in­crease on their taxes but there’s a lot more of them than there are of the se­niors and they will be se­niors some day, a lot of them real quickly,” he said. Knight said the homestead ex­emp­tion num­bers he first pre­sented to the BOC have not changed and will be good through the end of the year. What ef­fect the eco­nomic re­ces­sion has had on the county’s tax di­gest and any tax rev­enue pro­jec­tions will have to wait for the spring he said. “That is some­thing that we are mon­i­tor­ing,” Knight said. “We’re deal­ing with the fore­clo­sure sit­u­a­tion, just as all coun­ties are. We’ll con­tinue to track those num­bers. As we move on to March and early April is when we’ll have some fi­nal num­bers.” In Fe­bru­ary, county res­i­dents voted over­whelm­ingly in sup­port of a Board of Ed­u­ca­tion homestead ex­emp­tion pro­posal iden­ti­cal to the one vot­ers are be­ing asked to de­cide on now. Ear­lier this sum­mer Gov­er­nor Sonny Per­due an­nounced his de­sire to see the $428 mil­lion statewide Home­owner Tax Re­lief Grant elim­i­nated, in the wake of the state’s large bud­get short­fall. Though state leg­is­la­tors and county of­fi­cials are count­ing on the grant still be­ing there for 2009, the gov­er­nor has said that he does not see much long-term point to the pro­gram as it has not had the in­tended af­fect of low­er­ing prop­erty taxes. If the grant is cut, it could cost New­ton County as much as $1.8 mil­lion in state funds that have al­ready been in­cluded in the county’s fis­cal year 2009 bud­get.

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