published Friday, April 26th, 2013

Tax break for seniors could hurt Georgia schools

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Should senior citizens be exempt from paying school property taxes?
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It's been about a decade since Dade County, Ga., voters decided to exempt residents 65 and older from paying school property tax on their primary homes.

Schools Superintendent Shawn Tobin knows the exact number of homes that have signed up: 1,672.

He figures that's costing the school district about $1.3 million annually in lost property tax revenue -- money Tobin needs as the district faces such hurdles as an $1,800 increase in state health insurance this year for each bus driver, custodian and paraprofessional.

Tobin doesn't mince words when he explains why senior citizens should pay school property taxes on their Dade County residences, some of which he said are $500,000 homes on Lookout Mountain.

"Because somebody paid for theirs when they were kids, that's why," Tobin said. "This is America. This is the land of opportunity. You get an education in this country, you can be successful."

Nearby in Whitfield County, Tax Commissioner Danny Sane is just as passionate -- that seniors need a break on property taxes.

"Don't tell me that schools are hurting for money because of senior exemptions," Sane said.

He said the highlight of his 20-year career was getting county voters to approve an exemption for seniors that culminates in no school property taxes paid by those 70 and older on $150,000 of a home's market value.

"I proposed it because it's the right thing to do," said Sane, who described the age bracket as "some of the finest people on Earth."

As schools face mounting expenses and more baby boomers edge into retirement age, tension between the two viewpoints may grow.

Dade, Walker, Catoosa and Whitfield counties all offer some sort of school property tax break to senior citizens -- and many seniors are happy to opt in.

Exemptions popular

"We've got just over 4,000 residents on these exemptions," Sane said.

In Catoosa County, 2,028 seniors take the school tax break that totally exempts those over 75 from paying on their primary residence, Tax Commissioner Sandra Self said.

The number of participants climbed after the exemption was introduced in 1998, Self said, but eventually leveled out.

Rex Blevins, an attorney who served on Dade County's school board and County Commission, worries that Dade's schools will see a further erosion in tax base as more and more boomers apply for the exemption.

"I think everybody should pay something," said Blevins, who opposed Dade's senior exemption from the beginning and keeps tabs on how many sign up.

"Young people, they can't pay it any better than some 75-year-old," he said.

While Dade gives tax breaks to all homeowners over age 65 regardless of their income or their home's worth, the tax break Walker County adopted about five years ago is structured so that seniors don't pay school tax on the first $125,000 in their home's market value -- but pay on anything above that.

"It's a good break for anybody," Walker County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker said.

Some seniors pay school taxes even though they could opt out.

"I have had some," Dade County Chief Appraiser Paula Duvall said. "Not many, but there have been a few."

"They may have grandkids in the schools and feel it's their part to contribute," Duvall said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a townshipÂąs government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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