Cartersville voters will be able to cast a ballot in November on the senior school tax exemption question, but Bartow County voters will have to continue waiting for their turn.
The Georgia House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 490, which would exempt seniors living in the city limits from a portion of their school taxes, by a 156-1 vote on June 19, and the measure will be placed on the Nov. 3 general election ballot as a referendum for Cartersville voters to consider.
If approved, the bill, sponsored by Sens. Bruce Thompson and Chuck Hufstetler and Rep. Matthew Gambill and adopted by the Senate March 9 by a 51-1 vote, would increase the current homestead tax exemption for Cartersville residents 65 or older or totally disabled from the first $28,000 of assessed value to the first $60,000 of assessed value.
"There was a lot of discussion and, obviously, a lot of emotion over this," Thompson said Thursday. "It's been a long time coming. But that passed out of the House. That goes to a November referendum for the voters."
SB 490 was the second proposal created by legislators after the Cartersville City School Board in January vehemently opposed House Bill 684, which called for school tax exemptions of 50% of the assessed value for residents 65 and older, 75% for those 70 or older and 100% for those 80 and older.
"Originally, the House introduced two bills, one for the House, one for the Senate," Thompson said. "Our position in our caucus is consistent in that we do not like to disrupt or take up legislation that is not supported in a strong fashion from the entity of which we're going to affect. So the city came out very strongly, unanimous, against that bill."
But the Republican senator from White said he and Hufstetler met with school board members on several occasions then "brought that information back to the caucus and ultimately drafted what they wanted."
"They gave us a unanimous resolution saying what they wanted," he said. "So what we voted on and the House voted on was exactly what they wanted, unanimously."
Board President Kelley Dial said the board's position on SB 490 "has not changed" since its drafting even though the economy has taken a hit due to the coronavirus outbreak.
"We are comfortable allowing city voters to examine the issue, consider how it aligns with their personal beliefs and conditions and then vote accordingly," she said. "If the voters approve an increase in the exemption, our system will be prepared to adjust to the decrease in local revenue."
In January, when the economy was booming and the COVID-19 pandemic hadn't hit yet, Dial said board members reminded their constituents that public education still had to be funded "even when state funds fall short of what is expected."
"Children still come to school during a recession; funds are still required," she said. "In addition, children must be educated even when a pandemic prohibits them from physically coming to school. As we stressed at that time, we maintain reserves to help us through lean financial times. Reserves remain in place to fill in the gaps as necessary and practical."
The school district is "putting together a very conservative budget for next year" due to budget cuts being brought on by the state shutdown, but “we will not sacrifice the education of our youth,” Dial said.
"We are continuing to build models as to what school will look like next year,” she said. “We do not know yet whether that will be a traditional classroom experience, virtual learning or a combination of the two. Many factors weigh into that decision, including the number of students that will return, the safety of our team members and current recommendations of public health officials. We have made and will continue to make decisions that allow us to be flexible moving from one learning model to another on very little notice."
If voters approve the increased tax exemption, the board will "be prepared to adjust to the shortfall of funds without sacrificing the education of our students," Dial said.
"We believe that, because of the planning and reserves we have in place, we remain in a position to weather the downturn in the economy, even if our funds are further decreased because of the increased exemption," she said. "It is always our mission to provide quality educational opportunities for our students while being mindful of how taxpayer dollars are allocated."
As for Bartow County voters, they will have to wait until next year for another chance to get a senior tax relief referendum on the ballot.
House Bill 655, which proposes the same progressive school tax exemptions of 50%, 75% and 100% that the city rejected, was passed by the House March 26, 2019, by a vote of 156-1 but has yet to be approved by the Senate.
When the legislative session ended Friday, the measure had not been passed by state senators.
“The bill was not called up for a vote today and failed passage,” Thompson said.
The senator said Hufstetler, who is the finance chairman, has told him there are “strong indications that 2021 may actually be worse in state revenues than the projected $3 billion shortfall OPB [the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget] has estimated for 2020.”
“This past week, the city legislation was signed and passed by the House so we proposed similar legislation matching the city, believing it might be more suitable considering the current economy and forecasted 2021,” he said. “Unfortunately, that idea was rejected by the House.”
Thompson said a lot of misinformation is being spread throughout the community regarding HB 655.
"The county version [of senior tax relief], there's been a lot of discussion over, and that wound up being aired out through emails and Facebook and social media and all kinds of things that, frankly, are just not true,” he said. “Lots of stuff that has been aired out that's just not true."
In a radio interview, Thompson said there is a "small group of individuals that have asserted themselves as the voice piece for the seniors, and I recommended the seniors replace them."
"I did not say that there was a small group of seniors that wanted it,” he said. “That mouthpiece has done more to damage the collaborative and coalition to try and do something from the seniors than anything."
The senator also said comments being made in public that he did not sign HB 655 “are false” and that he has a copy of the bill, which he provided to the Daily Tribune News, that shows his signature as well as that of the clerk of the House.
But Rep. Mitchell Scoggins, who introduced HB 655 with Rep. Trey Kelley and Gambill, said Hufstetler signed the bill but Thompson hasn’t, even though he agreed to sign it during a meeting of all five Bartow County delegates in Kelley’s office in March.
“We all agreed that the House members would sign the bill that the senators had passed for the city of Cartersville citizens to be able to vote on senior tax relief, and both senators agreed, with witnesses present, that they would sign HB 655, allowing the county citizens to vote for senior tax relief,” he said Friday in a statement. “Sen. Hufstetler signed the county bill, and this being Day 40, the last day of this session, Sen. Thompson still has not signed the bill as he indicated he would at our meeting.”
Therefore, HB 655 “sits in the Senate, with four out of our five delegates having signed the bill, with Sen. Thompson holding it up,” Scoggins said.
“So this is the situation he has left our seniors,” he said. “The city of Cartersville residents can vote in November for senior tax relief, and the county residents are being denied the same right, all because the senator did not sign the bill. This is unfair to our residents.”
Bartow County School Board Chairman Fred Kittle said residents having the opportunity to vote on HB 655 “solely rests with Sen. Bruce Thompson.”
“The other four members of the Bartow delegation have signed HB 655, according to our representatives,” he said. “Bruce is in his rights to oppose the people voting on HB 655 that would reduce seniors’ tax burden on their home.”
Kittle said the bill was a compromise made after Kelley, Scoggins and Gambill reviewed data three years ago that showed a 100% senior tax exemption in Bartow County would cost the school system $2 million.
“Today, with the higher assessments, it could be $3 million for 100% exemption,” he said. “It is important to note that HB 655 does not exempt senior tax 100% and that many seniors, unfortunately, will not be living to get the 100% at age 80.”
School board members voted more than a year ago to remove an existing resolution that was a “stumbling block to move forward any legislation on senior tax relief,” Kittle said.
Then earlier this year, board members learned that Hufstetler wanted a resolution from the board, asking the delegation to put senior tax relief on the November ballot, which it approved in a 4-1 vote, he said.
“My gut tells me if Sen. Bruce Thompson prevents HB 655 from being on the ballot, there will be more negotiations with him and our other representatives,” Kittle said. “We know thousands of all ages in Bartow County have expressed a desire for some relief for seniors.”
Thompson said he and Hufstetler crafted another bill for the county in March that “mirrored what the city had that they passed.”
“But the House was unwilling to sign it [then], and some members of the House were unwilling to sign that bill recently as well," he said. "Some of the members of the delegation said that they were speaking to the members of the senior citizen community, and they were opposed. They only wanted what 655 had.”
He also said he didn’t know if that was true because he “didn't interview these people."
“The House delegation has entertained a relationship from about five members of the senior community that have become the mouthpiece," he said.
Scoggins said he and Gambill have “committed to introduce legislation every year until we can allow everyone equal opportunity to vote on senior tax relief.”
“The best way to have your voice heard is to allow people to vote and decide important issues,” he said. “Sen. Thompson has stated a small group of people were pushing this issue. I disagree because over 1,200 people attended a meeting in December.”