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Posted: October 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Getting what you pay for

The governor and Georgia Legislature are scrambling to balance the budget, looking at a potential $1.6 to $2 billion deficit. The state is required legally to balance its budget and can only do so by cutting services or by taking out loans to cover the deficit. The amount that can't be cut from the budget will come from the pockets of Georgia taxpayers - you and me.

The same is true for Newton County's budget. The county gets revenue from property taxes, sales taxes, sale of services and various other fees. The revenue supports all county services -- Sheriff's Department, Fire Department, library, recreation department, public works, among others. All of these services are necessary for a desirable quality of life, here or anywhere, and all of us will be affected if there are cuts in any of these services. Your safety and the amount of homeowner's insurance you pay are dependant on the quality of the fire department and sheriff's department services. We have recreation facilities in this county that are the envy of other towns throughout the country. They are often chosen to host various tournaments. The library is the most used facility in the county and is building a new branch in the Oak Hill Community. The Public Works Department maintains roads and water lines for those living in the county as well as other services.

But the bottom line is you get what you pay for. What, in the above list of services would you like to cut? And how much? Or would you prefer that the county get a loan? Rockdale County balances its budget with loans. Newton County has historically budgeted its monies to match its revenue.

If the homestead referendum on the November ballot passes, county government must do something to balance the budget. Chief Appraiser Tommy Knight estimated that the current exemption to senior citizens costs the county $496,308. The senior citizen exemption applies to seniors who make less than $15,000. If a home, in unincorporated Newton County is worth $125,000, it is assessed at 40 percent of its value, and its assessment is $50,000. Then seniors, who make less than $15,000, can take $20,000 from the assessed value and only pay taxes on $30,000.

We automatically gasp that someone would be making less than $15,000. How, in this day and time, can someone live on that amount of money? But, according to Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler, the $15,000 amount does not reflect actual income. Social Security income and pensions, up to $52,400 dollars a year, are not counted as income. In other words, if a senior citizen makes $67,300 a year in pension payments and Social Security, only $14,900 of that $67,300 is counted as income, and that senior citizen qualifies for the $20,000 deduction from the 40 percent assessment.

If the homestead referendum on the November ballot passes, that same senior citizen can now make $77,300 and qualify for a $30,000 deduction from the 40 percent assessment of his home.
Knight estimated that the passage of the additional senior homestead exemption could cost the county a minimum of $310,192 a year. As a new crop of citizens become seniors each year, the effects of these possible new applicants could cost the county additional exemptions of another $126,490 in revenue. In fact it is estimated the exemption would have an impact of $1,629,812 in revenue for the county.

Yes, other Georgia counties have passed similar exemptions for senior citizens. But those counties have a broader tax base than Newton County. Those counties have shopping malls, which generate more sales taxes, and they have more businesses and office parks. Newton County is primarily a bedroom community with the majority of its revenue coming from property taxes.

That fact gets us back to the question - how do you replace the lost revenue? Or where do you cut services?

There is no doubt that the country is in an economic recession. Many programs are already cut to bare bones. Porterdale had to furlough a policeman. The library, according to Director Greg Heid, is only spending money on the acquisition of books as its money from the state has been cut so drastically. It is not feasible that the shortfall can be made up by cutting programs.

The obvious answer is that other citizens will pay more taxes to make up for the senior exemptions, homeowners who are not over 65. Who are these homeowners? Generally, they are parents with children. Households with three or more members will have to pay more taxes to make up for the tax loss of households with one or two members.

Does it not make sense that larger households can less afford more taxes? Do we, as Newton Countians, want to be known as a group who punishes families? Or do we want to be known as a county that welcomes families and offers exceptional recreational opportunities, parks and safety amenities for families and children?

Do we want to live in a diverse community and neighborhoods, or do we want to live in senior citizen enclaves, never hearing the laughter of children?

As seniors, do we tell our churches we will continue to attend services but no longer put money in the collection plate because we have turned 65? Do we tell our civic groups we will continue to attend meetings but no longer pay dues or contribute to fundraisers because we have turned 65? No.

Why then, as seniors, should we tell the county we will continue to enjoy its services without paying our share for them because we have turned 65?

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