Hamilton County commissioner exploring ways to alleviate tax burden on the elderly

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Newly elected Hamilton County Commissioner for District 8 David Sharpe, center, greets new Commissioner for District 5 Katherlyn Geter during Sharpe's elections party at Big River Grill on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County commissioners might get a chance to consider how to alleviate the impact of property taxes for senior citizens.

With the possibility of a 34-cent property tax rate increase looming, many residents have been speaking out about the impact rising taxes can have on those living on a fixed income.

County Commissioner David Sharpe, of District 6, said he plans to introduce a resolution at Wednesday's commission meeting that would propose a plan to alleviate the burden on seniors.

The issue of seniors on fixed incomes is certainly a hot topic of conversation, Sharpe said. "Folks are concerned about their ability to live on a fixed income and pay their taxes. I have every intention of addressing it."

Sharpe told the Times Free Press that he was exploring a few options, but hadn't settled on what he thought was ideal.

The county already offers a senior tax relief program that matches 50% of what the state provides to senior citizens with a yearly income under a certain threshold.

This year, people age 65 or older with a household income of $29,200 or less are eligible to apply for the relief program. Participants receive reimbursements from the state for the first year and the county matches 50% of those funds. After the first year, seniors receive vouchers reflecting a lowered or zeroed-out tax liability that they can send in with their tax bills.

Currently, about 3,600 residents participate in the program, according to Hamilton County Trustee Bill Hullander, which costs the county about $360,000 a year.

Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, of District 7, confirmed that Sharpe had spoken to her about bringing a resolution before the commission.

In 2017, the commission increased funds for the program and in the past Smedley and Commissioner Greg Martin, of District 3, proposed introducing a tax rate freeze for Hamilton County's elderly residents, but the resolution never passed.

Smedley doesn't think the discussion should be about how to help seniors this year - she says the county should just not raise property taxes at all.

"My answer would be let's not raise taxes at this time," she said. "When I don't know what the financial impact would be at this time, I'd say lets not raise taxes then we won't negatively impact our citizens, which is a real concern for me."

Several commissioners have voiced their concerns in recent weeks about the impact a property tax rate increase could have on their constituents, so soon after the commission voted to maintain the millage rate in 2017, a de facto tax increase for residents.

"The information I've got from [my constituents] so far makes it clear that a tax increase is off the table for me this time," Commissioner Randy Fairbanks, of District 1, previously told the Times Free Press. "I have to be sensitive to what it costs them and what they want."

District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd has also been outspoken about his opposition. He has urged Hamilton County Schools, which has asked for an additional $34 million for its fiscal year 2020 budget, to go back to the drawing board rather than ask taxpayers for more.

Sharpe, who is in favor of giving additional funding to public education, said he's sensitive to taxpayers' concerns.

"I empathize greatly with those on limited incomes who struggle to pay enough for what we need to move our schools forward," Sharpe said. "Unfortunately, this is how we have to go about generating revenue. If we are able to lighten the blow or eliminate it entirely for many of our senior citizens in Hamilton County, I hope it will help us get where we need to be."

One of the options would be for the county to 100% match the state's portion of relief, which would cost the county approximately $800,000 to $1 million a year, Hullander said.

It's unclear if the county could partially fund relief for those above the threshold, because only the state could raise the income threshold. The average household income for senior citizens in Hamilton County is around $40,000.

Hullander said that another 700 Hamilton County residents fall under that threshold.

The county commission meets this Wednesday for the last agenda session before it's scheduled vote on the FY 2020 budget and the potential tax increase. Resolutions introduced this week will be voted on at the following commission meeting on June 19.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.