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BOC tax referendum slated for election
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Senior citizens in Newton County could be on the receiving end of additional homestead tax exemptions.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted 3-2 to approve a proposal that will put a senior citizen homestead tax exemption on the ballots in either July or November - a referendum that could lead to a nearly $437,000 shortfall in revenue for the county if approved.

The proposed BOC referendum will be similar to the Newton County Board of Education proposal that passed on Tuesday with 87 percent of the vote. If passed, the proposed referendum will go into effect on the 2009 tax digest.

 According to a document prepared by Tommy Knight, Newton County's chief tax appraiser, the current senior citizen homestead exemption for the county is $16,000 with an income cap of $15,000 per year.

The proposed referendum would allow for a $26,000 exemption and a $25,000 per year income cap.

Knight said 3,188 parcels currently qualify for the homestead exemption, which cost the county $496,308 in tax revenue. The proposed exemption would add an extra 500 parcels to the list of those that qualify and up the total tax revenue lost by the county to $932,990.

Newton County Citizens for Tax Relief, a group of senior citizens petitioning for the additional tax exemptions, organized nearly two dozen county senior citizens to attend Tuesday's meeting in support of the referendum.

One of the members, M.A. Turner, addressed the commissioners during discussion of the proposal to request the referendum be placed on the ballot.

"Anybody with any sense would like to do away with taxes," Turner said. "What we would like to have now is some immediate relief. We're just asking that you give seniors a little help if you can see yourself clear to do that we would appreciate it."

The proposed referendum met with some opposition at Tuesday night's meeting. Some commissioners felt it would be more prudent to research further the impact of the additional tax exemptions on the county's incoming tax revenue.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing said he preferred to hold off voting until the Georgia legislature has adjourned to see what tax relief bills are passed.

"I can't make this decision tonight on something I just got five minutes ago," said Ewing referring to the proposed referendum. "I don't want to vote 'no' on this, but I'm going to have to if it comes to a vote tonight."

Concerns about an adequate revenue stream for the upcoming budget were also voiced by District 5 Commissioner Monty Laster.

"I don't think us putting it off until June would be a problem," Laster said. "I don't want us to rush into this. I would like for us to go through the budget process before we make that decision."

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, who made the motion to put the referendum on the ballot, said he did not feel the need to wait any longer on the proposal. This was an apparent change of mind of Henderson who suggested earlier in the meeting that no action be taken until all possibilities had been review.

"This has been something we have all tussled with and have really wanted to do something about," Henderson said.

After nearly 30 minutes of debate, Henderson's motion to have the referendum on the ballot passed with the two dissenting votes coming from Ewing and Laster.

Other proposals

During discussion of the proposed state exemption, Henderson asked Knight what the estimated cost of a total senior citizen homestead tax exemption would mean for the county.

According to Knight's quick calculation, a complete exemption based on age only no income requirements for residents 65 years old or older would mean a loss of nearly $1.6 million per year.

Knight said the exemption could be phased in over time but that would be up the commissioners to set the time frame.

"I couldn't support a total exemption," said District 3 Commissioner Ester Fleming. "That would be devastating for this county's budget. We need that revenue to run the county."