Georgia state representative declines key piece of Dade County school board's request to decrease tax breaks for elderly property owners

Then candidate Colton Moore talks about their ideas about infrastructure Wednesday, May 16, 2018 during a forum held at the Rossville Public Library in Rossville, Ga. The event was hosted by the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group.

TRENTON, Ga. - A significant piece of the Dade County Board of Education's requested "65 and 5" reform will not go on ballots next year.

State Rep. Colton Moore said he will not include a proposed decrease in the tax break for elderly property owners. Currently, anyone in the county older than 65 is exempt from paying any school taxes on their home and up to 5 acres of land. The board requested a change, in which those property owners instead would be exempt on the first $150,000 of assessed value.

The board unanimously voted on Feb. 4 to request the change. But after a town hall meeting Sunday, in which several residents criticized the board's request, Moore said he will not back their proposal. He wants the tax break to still help elderly residents on fixed incomes, and he's not sure what impact the proposed change would have.

"I have not been shown enough data to support an accurate cap," he said. "Until we can see that data, I will not go forward with putting that cap on."

Voters will still decide on another issue with respect to the "65 and 5" exemption. Moore, R-Trenton, met with legislative counsel in the capitol Monday to write a local act that will add another wrinkle to the law. If approved by voters on a referendum in 2020, residents will have to live in Dade County for at least 5 years before they can receive the exemption.

None of the county's five school board members returned calls from the Times Free Press on Monday except for Jennifer Hartline, who declined to comment. Superintendent Jan Harris did not know about Moore's decision until contacted by the newspaper. She was surprised by the change and thought the details of the proposal were fleshed out at the end of January, when she, Moore, Hartline and board chairwoman Carolyn Bradford met.

She said the school district does not plan to increase property tax revenue through the change. Rather, she said the board wanted to spread out the tax burden. With other, richer people paying no property taxes, she argued younger residents are bearing more of the burden.

"We just appreciate anything he's doing to change the taxation and make it more fair," Harris said. "But that's not really what we're about. We're about teaching kids how to read and write."

Former county executive Ben Brandon began pushing for the 100 percent exemption when he campaigned in 2004. Putting a referendum on a ballot was his first item of business when he took office. In September 2005, according to Times Free Press archives, voters approved the tax break by a margin of 1,471-369.

During an interview with the Times Free Press on Monday, Brandon said the exemption was important because elderly residents on fixed incomes should not have to pay for schools their children do not attend. He argued younger families should bear the brunt of that burden.

The board of education tried to reform the exemption in October 2014, when it unanimously passed a resolution calling for a new vote. At the time, the board proposed a tax break on the first $125,000 of assessed value on the home. If a homeowner's property is worth $200,000, for example, he or she would pay based on $75,000.

The Georgia General Assembly needed to pass the item before it could go on a referendum, but the state delegation never passed an act to follow through on the board's request. In 2016, Harris said, members of the school board met privately with state Rep. John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain. They asked for the referendum again, but Harris said Deffenbaugh told them he would not support it.

Moore, who defeated Deffenbaugh last year, said during his campaign he wanted to amend the property tax exemption. But during the town hall, several residents spoke against the proposed $150,000 cap, arguing that the 100 percent tax cut should remain in place.

On Monday, Moore said he does not see enough data to support changing the tax cut. He wants to know "a number that will give a substantial benefit to those under 65 while still helping those over 65 who need the exemption." That data might be hard, if not impossible, to nail down.

The closest the county has to data at this point is a figure the tax assessor's office gave Harris earlier this month. She said 1,500 people take advantage of the exemption in Dade County. If each of their properties were worth the county average - $150,000 - the exemption keeps about $1.3 million in tax revenue away from the school district.

"There's been conflicting messages from different members of the community," Moore said, of how big the tax cut should be. "I have not seen concrete data."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.