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Six months later, no senior tax exemption referendum

Six months after Bartow County senior citizens asked local legislators to enact a senior school tax exemption, there are still no answers.

Last October, more than 600 seniors packed the Clarence Brown Center to exhort Bartow’s state legislators — Reps. Paul Battles and Christopher Coomer and State Senator Bruce Thompson — to prepare a referendum exempting them from school taxes.

It was the second town hall type meeting on the subject. The first meeting, held a year earlier. yielded a proposal that Thompson would chair a study by the Bartow delegation. They would introduce legislation to have a referendum placed on the November 2016 ballot for Bartow residents to vote.

Nothing happened.

“We had a meeting last year at the County Commissioners office but we couldn’t come up with a consensus on where to go with it,” Thompson said before the second meeting. “You have had some time to decide on some satisfactory options. I have heard they have gathered several hundred signatures on a petition and that is very encouraging. That is what led to this second meeting.”

Forty-five people signed up to speak at the second meeting, mostly in favor of the exemption.

“Bartow seniors are getting hit hard in the pocketbook while surrounding counties have taken steps to alleviate the financial burden,” said Charlie Lowry, an Emerson resident and a proponent of the exemption. “It’s not unusual for Georgia counties to give older residents a break on school taxes.

“The surrounding counties, take Cobb for an example. When you turn 62, you pay no school tax. That makes up about 65 to 70 percent of your total tax bill. In Cherokee County, when you reach $156,000 in appraised value — that’s 40 percent of market value — you no longer pay the school portion of the tax after you turn 65. In Paulding County seniors are exempt from one-half of the school tax portion of the bill, provided they earn less than $10,000 a year not including income from private retirement plans, disability, 401k or Social Security. After 70, the discount increases to the entire school tax portion.”

But both school board superintendents, Dr. John Harper and Dr. Howard Hinesley, said their systems couldn’t provide a quality education in the face of such cuts.

Harper said the adoption of senior exemptions would just mean a shift in taxation rather than a removal of it, while Hinesley pointed out that historically everyone paid taxes and those dollars were spent to educate the students that came behind.

Battles cautioned the crowd that the process of applying for the exemption was a difficult, and often slow process.

“The only way you can get any type of change is through your legislative body,” he said. “This is a difficult task, but we will find a way. It just may take a while.”

But that was six months ago and the 2017 legislative session has come and gone.

“I was waiting for it to come from the House,” Thompson said. “All bills must originate in the House and come to the Senate. I don’t know what happened.”

Battles said he tried but didn’t have the votes to push the legislation through.

“I proposed legislation to our district representatives and senators in the last General Assembly session,” he said. “But I didn’t have the votes. The bylaws of our delegation requires that any legislation that affects Bartow County, or any other single county, requires a minimum of four votes out of five supporting the legislation.”

Battles said of the five members of the house and senate districts, he could only get three votes — that of the local legislators — and the legislation died.

“The other two legislators are from Floyd and Paulding counties,” he said. “And I think they were afraid if they voted for Bartow, they might be expected to do the same for their counties.”

Still, Battles said he is working for next year — his last as a legislator — to push through some sort of senior tax exemption.

“I knew all along that 100 percent wouldn’t go,” he said. “Right now, 65-year-olds get a $40,000 exemption from property taxes. I would like to get another $60,000 at age 75 — that would be a total of $100,000 — and I am going to do everything I can to get it done.”

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