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Weighing the cost
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Oxford councilman Frank Davis retired in 1993, and since that time the property taxes he owes every year have doubled.

Ad valorem, or property, taxes in Newton County fund state operations, county maintenance and operations, school maintenance and operations, school bond repayment, fire districts, ambulances and hospitals.

Davis and a loose knit group of 50 to 60 county seniors joined in 2006 to form Newton Citizens for Tax Relief (NCTR) and began meeting with members of the Newton County School System Board of Education to ask for an exemption in paying school M&O property taxes. They have argued their children are no longer in school, so they should not have to pay.

"I know a lot of people who are in the retired category who just can't afford this," Davis said. "They have to go out and take jobs to pay their taxes."

NCTR members proposed the board eliminate all school property taxes for seniors and replace it with a half-cent sales tax.

NCSS Superintendent Steve Whatley explained why this option was not feasible for the board.

Before 1983, 10 school systems had made local amendments to the Georgia Constitution to institute a permanent one-cent sales tax for school operations.

In 1983, the provision allowing amendments to the state constitution for local purposes was eliminated. The elimination was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court.

Whatley said the board then had to examine the possibilities of completely exempting seniors from school M&O taxes, increasing the current exemption or leaving the current exemption as is.

"Even in maintaining the current income requirements and exemptions, these exemptions currently cost the district approximately $1.13 million," Whatley said.

Currently seniors 65 and older, who have a recalculated income of no more than $15,000, can apply for a double homestead exemption for $20,000 of the assessed value of their home.

Whatley said the board chose to introduce legislation calling for a local referendum asking voters to choose whether to increase the exemption to $30,000 and the income cap to $25,000.

He said the board reviewed a number of factors before approving the wording of the referendum. First, was the board has executive power to adopt a budget and legislative power to set tax rates.

"Second, at the state level in the 2007 legislative session, there were at least 18 bills on taxation being introduced in the House and two in the senate that have an effect on state and local revenue," Whatley said. "Many of these have the potential of changing the revenue available to school systems."

Perhaps the most controversial legislation introduced was House Speaker Glenn Richardson's HR 900, also known as the GREAT (Georgia's Repeal of Every Ad Valorem Tax) Plan. The resolution would increase the scope of Georgia's sales tax.

The board has expressed to local legislators they do not support any legislation that would unfairly shift the tax burden onto lower income citizens.

Davis said he too had questions about the GREAT Plan before he could support it.

"I don't want to see somebody in state government decide where it goes back and if you're on the wrong side of the political fence, you come up short on funds," Davis said.

Another factor reviewed by the board in deciding on the exemption and income amount was research published by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) - an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization studying the fiscal and economic well-being of Georgia.

A GBPI paper published in March 2006 evaluated the success of senior citizen income tax cuts. The paper encouraged local boards to review the possibility of cuts based on ability to pay rather than age alone.

Whatley also said the board looked at its expenditures per full-time equivalent (FTE) student. The board currently expends $564 less per student than the state average.

An estimated $10 million would be needed to expend as much as the state average; since the board can only assess up to 20 mils and the current millage rate stands at 18.21 mils, the board only has the possibility of raising $4.83 million more at the maximum millage rate.

The final factor in the board's determination not to completely exempt seniors from school M&O taxes was that local taxes are a major revenue source for the district.

"When the revenue picture is cloudy due to questionable tax legislation or the elimination, lessening of a source of property tax revenue, such as senior citizens tax relief, then problems occur in projecting the amount of revenue available in budgeting," Whatley said.

A complete senior citizen school M&O tax exemption would cost the system an estimated $1.1 to $5.4 million a year. If the referendum is approved, the tax assessor's office estimated the district would lose $550,000 a year.

"In light of these issues and the potential loss of revenue or shifting of that revenue responsibility to some other taxpayers, the Board wanted to be responsive to the needs of senior citizens," Whatley said, "but at the same time, support the financial needs of the school system without shifting too greatly to other taxpayers the burden of raising revenue."

Davis said although the board was unable to give his organization exactly what they asked for, they do support the passage of the Feb. 5 referendum.

"We are supporting it, of course, because a little bit is better than nothing," Davis said.

Soon, Davis will meet with the Newton County Board of Commissioners and ask them to approve another referendum asking voters to choose whether seniors should also have a double homestead exemption similar to the proposed school exemption on their county M&O property taxes. He would also like the commissioners to freeze evaluations on owner-occupied homes as 32 other Georgia counties do.

He recently was elected to the Oxford City Council and said he will work toward passing a like referendum for the city's senior residents as well.

Davis said he feels confident about the upcoming referendum and the possibility of a county referendum because he handed both the school board and the county commission a petition with approximately 2,000 signatures supporting their passages.

He estimated if the school exemption was passed he would save roughly $50 to $60 a year on his school M&O property taxes.

Whatley wanted voters to remember decreasing sources of revenue without replacing them with other avenues of funding takes money away from public education in Newton County.

"The stability of revenue is vital to preserving quality education in the schools of Newton County," Whatley said.