published Friday, January 24th, 2014

Seniors to remain exempt from Dade County property tax

When 73 percent of Dade County, Ga., voters chose to offer senior citizens a school property tax exemption in 2005, they did so under the impression that it would cost the school district $128,000 a year, money that largely could be recouped through out-of-state tuition fees.

Nine years later, Dade County Superintendent Shawn Tobin estimates that the seniors' exemption is costing Dade County Schools nearly $1 million annually.

And despite a unanimous resolution by the Dade County Board of Education imploring state legislators to revisit the issue, the exemption will not come before Dade County voters in 2014.

Although Tobin said he was directly told otherwise in October 2013, Georgia state Rep. John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain, said Wednesday that he will not carry the bill in the House, meaning that it will not appear on a ballot in 2014.

"I'm extremely disappointed in John Deffenbaugh that he would see a resolution from elected officials, a unanimous decision, and he is preventing the people of Dade County a vote on a ballot," Tobin said. "I'm extremely disappointed because previously they took another resolution from the county commissioners and introduced this."

When the seniors' exemption first arose as a possibility with the county commissioners in 2005, then-county commissioner Ben Brandon stressed that the amount it would cost the schools equated to "a rounding error in most businesses' financial statements."

But Tobin says that more than 1,700 senior citizens have signed up for the exemption and that it is costing Dade County schools a significant amount of money that it desperately needs. The proposed revision to the current statute still exempted Dade County residents 65 and over from school property taxes on the first $125,000 of the fair market value of their homes.

To homeowners on Lookout Mountain, that was of little consolation at Dade County's Board of Education meeting on Monday, where a lengthy public input session brought both sides of the argument to light.

"This is not a matter of Lookout Mountain versus the school board, although it has been characterized in that fashion," said Joseph Donnovin, a Lookout Mountain resident who would owe more than $4,500 annually in school property taxes if the full exemption were repealed because his home is valued at $901,500 by the Dade County tax assessor. "The value of one's home does not necessarily relate to one's ability to pay taxes."

Multiple other senior citizens with valuable property spoke against repealing the exemption, but Sarah Moore, a former Dade County commissioner, sided with Tobin, citing that commissioners agreed to the proposal in 2005 because they believed it would have little financial impact on the school district.

Deffenbaugh said he would revisit the issue in the future if it arose again, but simply did not view it as prudent to carry the bill at this time.

"In general, I wasn't sent to Atlanta to raise taxes with this economy the way it is," Deffenbaugh said, "especially on senior citizens with fixed income."

The prospect of increases for public education in the 2014 Georgia state budget is of little consolation to Tobin.

"If people are living in $500,000 or $900,000 homes and they're on fixed incomes, it might be time to sell their homes," he said. "That's the truth, and it'll get people riled up."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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