published Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Dade County eyes senior tax exemption revision

Senior citizens in Dade County, Ga., can choose not to pay any school property taxes, regardless of what their home's worth.

That could change, though.

The county board of education hopes to give voters the chance in November 2014 to revise the tax break so that senior citizens would stay property tax free on the first $125,000 of their home's market value -- but would pay school taxes on anything over that.

"This is a step in the right direction for us," school Superintendent Shawn Tobin said.

More than 1,600 Dade County residents age 65 and older have claimed the exemption on their primary residence on five acres or less since it was enacted in 2006. That costs the school district about $1 million annually in lost revenue, according to a resolution the board passed unanimously on Oct. 21 proposing to put the tax break revision before voters.

Meanwhile, the district has severe funding challenges, according to the resolution, because the state has slashed $12 million since 2003 from what the district should have gotten under the state's Quality Basic Education formula.

The funding challenges have caused Dade County Schools to increase class sizes, cut staff, eliminate courses such as driver's education, lower teachers' pay because of reduced work schedules and cut the school year to 168 days from 180 days, the resolution states.

Tobin said he doesn't think it's fair for seniors who live in new $400,000 and $500,000 homes on Lookout Mountain to avoid paying school taxes, because somebody paid taxes to send those people through school when they were young.

"The most important thing is the kids," he said. "It's the most important thing for the future."

In order for the measure to appear on the ballot, it will need the approval of Dade County's representatives in the Georgia Assembly, Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, and Rep. John Deffenbaugh.

Deffenbaugh expects the proposal will go before voters.

"I think it's a reasonable thing for [the school board] to try to accomplish," he said. "It's going to come down to whether the public approves it, or not."

While Deffenbaugh expects the measure to go on the ballot, he's not taking a stance on it.

"At this point, I'm not going to have a personal opinion," he said. "We'll put it on the ballot, then we'll discuss the pros and cons."

County Executive Ted Rumley doesn't think voters will change the senior citizens' tax exemption.

"That's just my opinion," he said. "I personally think the seniors, they need everything they can get as far as ... taxes go. But I understand where the school board is coming from."

Former County Executive Ben Brandon campaigned in 2004 and made eliminating school tax for seniors his main issue.

"Like all government entities, you cannot give [the school district] enough money, and they've been complaining since day one," Brandon said. "I think if this is put back on the ballot, it'll be defeated."

"I think the school district could cut back a lot more," Brandon said. "They have the ability to cut a lot more than they have."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfree press.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 township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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