Property tax exemption safe for now

Richmond County residents who haven't yet turned 65 can breathe a sigh of relief.

On Saturday, the Richmond County school board unanimously agreed to table for one year a proposal that would have modified the county's school property tax exemption for those 65 and older. It would have grandfathered in those already receiving the tax break, but in the future the amount of the exemption would be based on income.

The change would require approval by the Legislature and by voters in a referendum.

During a retreat Saturday, school board members said the idea -- first presented by Superintendent Dana Bedden in a recent meeting with the area legislative delegation as a way to recoup funding amid state budget cuts -- comes at a bad time as the economy continues to struggle. Board members also said it wasn't a popular idea in any age group, with newly elected member Patsy Scott saying that even those 35 years old in her district had voiced their displeasure.

"They want to have something to look forward to when they retire," she said.

Board member Frank Dolan said he feared that eliminating or reducing such an exemption could only hurt the county's efforts to reduce population decline.

"Anything we do to accelerate tax increases in Augusta, Ga., right now is going to be devastating in my opinion," he said. "We need to turn the flow around from Columbia County to here."

Dr. Bedden said he had "no personal stake" in the matter but had presented the idea as one way the system could address its financial challenges, to include recent state funding cuts. He said county officials have told him the senior exemptions represent at least $7 million, and that amount is increasing. In a previous meeting, 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 probably no teacher furloughs.

Dr. Bedden also cited other counties that have modified their exemptions based on income. He also noted that in Columbia County the school property tax exemption doesn't take effect until age 70.

In other action at Saturday's retreat, board members heard how in the next year there could be a settlement in a federal desegregation order that the system has operated under since 1964.

Ben Allen, the lawyer representing the original plaintiff, told board members at Saturday's retreat that he will work with board attorney Pete Fletcher and other school officials in the next year to address any lingering issues.

"It's our goal to negotiate a settlement agreement within one year," Mr. Fletcher said.

Officials have said that several steps, including infrastructure improvements, have been taken to address the order. But all agreed that more work is needed, with board member Barbara Pulliam noting, "We still refer to some schools as white schools and some as black schools."

Board members ended their Saturday meeting by deciding to continue the retreat at a 5 p.m. Tuesday meeting, where they will address 2010 legislative priorities proposed by the Georgia School Boards Association.

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

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