School tax exemption for seniors may be cut

Local lawmakers are considering ending the Richmond County school tax exemption for those 65 or older, although those now getting the tax break might get to keep it.

The issue was among several brought up during a Thursday breakfast meeting between school officials and the legislative delegation. It was called to focus priorities when the General Assembly convenes in two months and tight money becomes a factor.

Richmond County School Superintendent Dana Bedden said there might be an arrangement in which those who turn 65 would have to pay local school taxes based on certain factors. Those already 65 and receiving the exemption would be "grandfathered" in, he said.

Dr. Bedden said a person's income could be one factor for not being exempted from the tax. Some board members, however, said the person's income shouldn't factor in, saying it should instead be based on the person's home value because that's how taxes are assessed.

School board attorney Pete Fletcher said any move would require a referendum and the Legislature's support.

Rep. Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta -- who attended the meeting with state Rep. Hardie Davis, D-Gracewood, Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, and Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta -- said Thursday that any proposal should include the grandfathering idea, "and let's work from there."

Board member Frank Dolan quickly cautioned that tackling such a topic would be "a gigantic firestorm."

"Good luck. They'll kill you," he said, looking to delegation members, referring to how the public would likely react.

Kathleen Ernce, 63, executive director and advocacy programs director for the Senior Citizens Council of Greater Augusta and the CSRA, said such a plan would hurt the many seniors who already are having difficulty paying for increased health care and other costs.

"I was looking forward to not paying school tax," Ms. Ernce said after hearing the proposal, adding, "In order to meet daily needs even, the seniors are having to do without medication or do without food. And now with the possibility of having to pay an additional tax to what they already owe would really be a hardship."

Paul Reed and Jill McKee, both parents of Cross Creek High students, also said Thursday that they don't like the idea.

"I don't think that's right," said Ms. McKee, 45. "I think they (seniors) have paid enough."

"I just turned 50 and I think I've paid enough," said Mr. Reed with a laugh.

Dr. Bedden said county officials have told him such exemptions represent at least $7 million, and that amount is only increasing. He said that if that $7 million had been available to the school system this year, there would have been no discussion about potential property tax increases, and teacher furloughs likely wouldn't have occurred.

Delegation members asked the school board to first approve a resolution in favor of such a change before getting their support. Board members agreed to send the issue to their financial committee, and board president Marion Barnes said it would also be discussed at the school board's Dec. 11 retreat. After that, he said, another meeting would occur with delegation members.

Also at Thursday's meeting, Dr. Bedden said he had heard more state cuts to education are coming in January "and the word 'furlough' is coming out again." He asked the delegation to help "maintain the funding level as we try to stabilize and get past the point where we can recover."

This year, he said, his system was faced with a $25 million cut. And last school year, officials said Richmond County schools were dealt a $13 million midyear cut by the state.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3851 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com

HOW IT WORKS

Currently, those 65 and older in Richmond County can apply to be exempt from all local school taxes.

That resident, though, must occupy the home he or she receives the exemption on and must turn 65 as of Jan. 1 to get the exemption for that year.

The person must apply with the Augusta Tax Commissioner's office by April 1 for the exemption to credit that year.

Source: Augusta Tax Commissioner's office

 

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