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Will senior tax exemption hurt schools?
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Tuesday night an overwhelming 87 percent of Newton County's voters chose to give senior citizens an increased double homestead exemption on their school property taxes.

Voters approved increasing the exemption from $20,000 to $30,000 and the income cap for eligibility from $15,000 to $25,000 annual adjusted gross income.

"I think 87 percent is just incredible," said Frank Davis, Oxford City Council member and founder of Newton Citizens for Tax Relief. "I think the people are for it, and I'm just thankful the school board gave us the opportunity to vote on it."

Newton County Schools Superintendent Steve Whatley said tax revenue lost from newly qualified seniors is estimated at $550,000 or 1.1 percent of the $49,915,614 estimated ad valorem taxes for school maintenance and operations in the current budget.

"We expected a very high percentage of voters would be in favor of the referendum," Whatley said.

Even though the passage of the referendum was expected by the Newton County Board of Education, Whatley said it would be premature to speculate how the shortfall would be addressed in the 2009 budget.

He added the board will work diligently to determine how to make necessary adjustments appropriately.

Newton County Schools also have experienced declining collections of sales tax revenue as well as funding decreases from the state.

"Since 2003, state austerity reductions have resulted in a loss of slightly more than $11.38 million to Newton County Schools," Whatley said.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners also approved the proposal of a county double homestead tax exemption similar to the school tax exemption Tuesday night.

Davis said a similar county exemption would not save as much money on annual property taxes since the county's millage rate is 9.73 and the school's millage rate is 19.21.

"So, it wouldn't be quite as much on the county side," Davis said, "but the seniors appreciate any measure that allows them to save a little money."

Davis expects the county referendum on the ballot in July or November.

As an Oxford City Council member, Davis said he is actively working to ensure a senior homestead exemption from city of Oxford property taxes.

He said an election on the issue could not be scheduled until 2009 as city elections cannot coincide with county elections in 2008.