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Homestead referendum on the ballot
Measure would affect seniors citizens earning $25k or less
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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 no way to reduce taxes overall if you provide the same level of services," said District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing who is 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 to make more money," 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.