Homestead exemption town hall brings out hundreds of citizens

They began arriving just after 4 p.m., first filling the chairs inside the Jury Room of the Fannin County Court House. Then they stood, lining the walls inside the room. They spilled outside into the hall– and onto the floor – more tan 200 people. It was Thursday, Nov. 16 and a town hall meeting to address a potential Homestead Property Tax Exemption for seniors with House Speaker David Ralston and State Senator Steve Gooch was scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The meeting was billed as “a time to find out if Fannin County residents wanted to exempt property owners over 65 from paying school property taxes.” Ralston began the meeting, explaining that he and Sen. Gooch were there after several residents had come to him “over the years and asked if there was anything we could do to give senior citizens some relief from paying school property taxes. They wanted an exemption for those over 65 from paying property taxes. So we set up this Town Hall…” Ralston explained that no decision would be made at the meeting, but the voices of those present would be heard and, depending on the consensus of the group, he and Sen. Gooch would discuss what action, if any, would be taken. The Speaker emphasized that neither he nor Senator Gooch had taken a position concerning the potential change for Fannin taxpayers and were simply there to “hear what you want.” “It’s a big issue and big issues have big consequences. Consequences for seniors on fixed incomes who would have to pay property taxes. And consequences for our public schools that depend on those taxes,” he said. If the consensus was for an exemption (for senior citizens over 65), the procedure, Ralston said, is that a bill would be introduced in the Georgia House, then a majority vote by the 2018 session of the Georgia General Assembly would be necessary before the measure could be placed on the ballot in the 2018 Fannin County General Election. “So, what we’re going to do tonight is listen to you—to your comments and your reaction to comments and we’re going to go from there,” said Ralston, who then introduced his staff and Sen. Steve Gooch. Senator Gooch greeted the crowd as “friends” and remarked that he had been state senator for seven years and knew many of his constituents in Fannin County. Gooch said it was important to understand what happens when you make a change in legislation to change the way your money is spent. “This issue is very serious and very passionate—on both sides. He said he had dealt with the issue years ago when he was sole commissioner of Lumpkin County, where legislation was introduced that created a tax exemption for seniors aged 65 and up.” He continued, “I warned people at the time that there were good and bad consequences to legislation like this, and I hope whatever happens here in Fannin County, that people get the facts before they make their decisions on whether they support something or don’t support something. But the bottom line is this: property taxes are probably the worst, most hated taxes in the country. And I feel the same way. I don’t feel that any of us should pay the government to live in our own homes and if you don’t pay your taxes, your home is taken away from you. But unfortunately, the way Georgia’s Constitution is set up, that is what we use to fund our educational system and a good portion of our county’s goods and services.” Gooch further stated that would like to see a shift to “some kind of consumption tax” and believes that would be worthy of another look to see what we can do to give every homeowner in Georgia property tax relief. “It really is a burden for people to pay thousands of dollars—and most of the time it happens right at Christmas time. I feel your paid— I paid my taxes just this week, and I own some property here in Fannin County and I also sent a check to Shirley Sosebee.” He continued, “But I can tell you this, every time you create an exemption for any kind of tax, you’re shifting the burden to everyone else who’s not getting these exemptions. So whatever exemption you are for or not for, get to know that the consequences of those exemptions are.” The Senator then said that he was looking at a list of exemptions Fannin County seniors already get—may six or seven. “I would encourage you to get educated on the exemptions you can get from the city, the county and state. So, let’s start there and have this discussion again at a later time.” Gooch said he had an email from just one person about the issue to discuss they would discuss. He also assured the citizens that he supported education (mentioning the orange stickers many were wearing). “I’m here to listen. I am your voice in the Senate. Speaker Ralston is your voice in the House. And we work for you,” he concluded. Ralston then introduced Blake Doss, a policy analyst for the Georgia House Budget and Research office. Doss gave a short slideshow presentation, showing that Fannin has a total population of 25,000 (estimate) with 6,500 residents age 65 and older with a household income around $40,000 (approximately 26 percent of the county’s total population). Fannin County has a poverty level around 17 percent. According to his research, Fannin County School System received 55 percent of its 2016- 17 revenue ($18,501,250) from property taxes. State and federal funding provided other funding. (He cautioned here that some figures might be skewed because 18-year-old don’t own homes.) Doss continued, stating that a senior tax exemption would shift the burden to 40 to 45 percent of the county residents and that 33 to 35 percent of the county’s population would fall under the exemption eligibility in the next few years. He pointed out, “The county currently has two tax exemptions in place for seniors. One gives taxpayers 62 and older who meet income qualifications an exemption up to $30,000 of the 40 percent assessed property value. Another, instituted in 2004, provides a property valuation freeze for taxpayers 70 and older. And there’s another for those who make less than $20,000 a year.” Most citizens at the Town Hall opposed senior exemption. In addition to voicing their objections, many wore bright orange stickers reading “Support Education.” However, there were a few who supported the exemption (four who spoke at the meeting and one who confronted Speaker Ralston after the meeting, proclaiming he had his hand up “the whole time” and was not called to speak). Ralston patiently tried to explain that there were so many at the meeting, not everyone could be seen—to which the man became more enraged and was escorted out. Among those in favor of the senior exemption was Fannin County citizen Jim Clack who said he had lived in the county for over 20 years. In that time, he has paid approximately $100,000 in school taxes–currently $500 a month). “I’m 85 years old. When do I get any (tax) relief?” Clack asked. “I support the schools and I give them money, but I should not be paying school taxes when I am 85 years old and never had a kid in school in Fannin County. I do support the schools. I recently gave them $4,500 in exercise equipment. But I don’t think I should have to pay school taxes.” Clack said he had done research and found out that 28 counties in Georgia offered a senior tax exemption for taxpayers 65 and older. He listed several counties and asked (again), “Why do I have to pay school taxes when I’m 85 years old?” Those supporting the tax included Mike Queen, former Chairman of the Fannin School Board, who said he understood both arguments concerning the issue but knew the exemption would put a burden on younger taxpayers and families. “I pay a hefty tax…Every dollar I spend on education is an investment in the future of this county,” Queen said, “and I am glad to pay it—education is important.” Rita VanOrsdall stated, “I live in the Dial section of Fannin County, who told about her family’s 85- acre farm and how she couldn’t go to school in Fannin County because her father joined the “Army- Air Corp in the Second World War and I went to school all over the United States. However, after college, I returned to my family home in Fannin County to teach and my first job was at Fannin County High School.” She said, “Our school give the kids tools to become whatever they want to be…Without adequate funding, schools will send (students) out less prepared… I believe that cutting my age group’s taxes will do nothing but denigrate the quality of education of those coming after. They will need to face a world in change. We are educating children…for jobs that don’t even exist. We have to be proactive. This nation cannot have a functioning democracy without an educated populace.” (Loud applause and cheers.) Current Fannin School Superintendent Dr. Michael Gwatney informed the audience that Fannin County spends more per capita on students ($10,923.20 per student) than the state average of $9,020.46, despite having the sixth lowest school millage rate in the state (11.23 mills). According to Gwatney, the state average for school millage rates is 16.36 mills. He estimates Fannin County Schools would lose $1.4 million dollars annually if the exemption is passed. “Education is an investment, and it’s a good investment,” Gwatney said. Gwatney mentioned the struggles Gilmer County Schools have had since instituting a similar exemption. “History has a tendency to repeat itself. The showing in this room tonight does not want to repeat the history of Gilmer County,” Gwatney said. Dr. Dillon Miller, a family physician associated with the Appalachian Physicians Group at Fannin Regional Hospital, related that he is here in Fannin County because of the schools. “Before making the decision to come to Fannin, I had to know that the school system would be adequate for my family. Education is so important, and we must do everything we can to give our kids the edge they need to compete…we need to keep the funding.” Fannin Regional Hospital CEO David Sanders also opposed the exemption, explaining that the exemption would affect more than just the school system. Sanders stated during his seven years as CEO of the hospital he has recruited over 25 new physicians. “Every time I recruit a new physician here, the first question they ask is, ‘What’s the school system like?’ And every time it is a privilege to be able to say we have one of the best public school systems in the country.” Another citizen (did not get his name) who opposed the exemption told Ralston and Gooch, “I feel like our opinion has been voiced…and if our opinion has not been voiced and (the exemption) makes it to the ballot, that will be on the same ballot as the election you guys will be campaigning for.” However, one lady who supported the exemption asserted that most of those who supported the exemption were not notified of the town hall meeting at the same level that opponents of the exemption were. “It was not in the newspapers… I just heard about it,” she said. (On the FRONT PAGE of the Nov. 9 issue of the Fannin Sentinel is a story, “Ralston to host Fannin County Senior Homestead Exemption Town Hall.” With the story are images of Speaker David Ralston and Senator Steve Gooch.) Ralston responded that he had sent out personal letters over the last two weeks to supporters of the exemption, “to anyone who had contacted me,” and those for whom he had contact information, inviting their attendance and participation. Ralston also notified media of the meeting who all published online and in print, messages urging residents to attend. There were other property owners who spoke out against the exemption. Sonia Smith was one. She told of coming to America from England…how she struggled… to adapt to a new country, a new way of life and educate her children. She was eloquent in describing the struggles she faced–and overcame and vowed she would always, always support education in Fannin County and was happy to pay property taxes. After the meeting, which ended promptly at 7 p.m., Ralston said he felt the meeting was helpful and that he and Sen. Gooch would consider everything that was said before moving forward.