Chattanooga property taxes may be going up for most homeowners next year, but the city plans to hold the line on such taxes for low- and moderate-income seniors to help them stay in their homes.
Mayor Andy Berke asked the City Council on Tuesday to adopt a freeze on property taxes for elderly homeowners in their primary residence if they have a household income of $38,720 or less.
"The goal is to make sure that more seniors can stay in their homes and make sure that more people can live the life that they want here in our city," Berke told several dozen elderly Chattanoogans gathered Tuesday at the Eastgate Senior Center, where the mayor announced his property tax freeze for seniors. "We see our economy improving in Chattanooga, which is great. But as costs and home values go up, we want to make sure that our seniors are protected and able to stay in their homes."
Chattanooga City Council member Carol Berz said she expects the council will back the senior tax freeze, which Tennessee voters adopted as a local option for cities and counties a decade ago when they voted to amend the state constitution to allow the cap on seniors' property tax bills.
"We are enriched when we have people of all ages and all economic statuses in our neighborhoods," Berz said. "This is a wonderful move that the city is making. The city council is behind this and it is something that should have happened a long time ago."
If adopted, Chattanooga will be the first city in Hamilton County to implement such a tax freeze, although 31 other cities and 23 other counties in Tennessee have adopted measures to freeze property tax bills in the past decade.
Berke said he isn't sure exactly what such a property tax freeze would initially cost, but it is expected to be only a tiny share of the city's budget since only the increase in property taxes for low- and moderate-income senior homeowners would be capped by the freeze.
In Chattanooga, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 15.2 percent of the city's population, or 26,483 residents, are 65 years old or older. But many of those seniors live in rental units or earn more than $38,720 and would not be eligible for the property tax freeze. To get the tax break, seniors would be required to apply for the tax break and prove their income and residential status each year at the city treasurer's office.
Although not all seniors would qualify, those who do said they welcomed the proposed freeze, which must still be approved as part of the mayor's proposed new budget.
"Many of us are on a fixed income, and a property tax freeze would help make sure we still have money for our medications, for our groceries and for helping to provide for wonderful grandchildren," said Shirley Tipton, a retired homeowner who lives in Brainerd.
Homeowners qualifying for the program will have the property taxes on their principal residence frozen at a base tax amount, which is the amount of taxes owed in the year they first qualify for the program. Thereafter, as long as the owner continues to qualify for the program and live in their home, the amount of property taxes owed for that property will not change, even if there is a property tax rate increase or their home valuation is increased through a reappraisal, as is the case with this year's reassessment by the Hamilton County Office of Assessor.
Dr. Everlena Homes, an 83-year-old coordinator for the Glenwood Neighborhood Association, said the property tax freeze for seniors will help her and many other elderly homeowners stay in the houses where they grew up or where they have raised their families and contributed to the city for years.
"These seniors are the souls of our neighborhoods," Holmes said. "They are our treasures and we should do all that we can to enable them to live out their twilight years in their homes without (property tax) worries. Gentrification is definitely hurting many seniors who often live in areas where home prices and taxes are going up all around us."
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (423) 757-6340.
This story was updated Aug. 2 at 12 a.m. with more information.