Decatur Senior Homestead Tax Committee to recommend age and income-based exemptions
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By Sara Amis, contributor
Decatur, GA — The Senior Homestead Tax Exemption Committee met Aug. 19 to discuss the recommendations they will be making to the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education at its next meeting.
The current senior homestead tax exemption was passed in 2016, with a five-year sunset, with the stated goals of keeping seniors in the community and reducing new student enrollments. However, a study conducted by Georgia State University determined that the exemption did not achieve either of those goals.
“Unfortunately there was no change in seniors moving out of Decatur and there was no real slowdown in new CSD enrollments after the exemption went into place,” said committee member Hans Utz, who is also a contributor to Decaturish. “On top of that, there were some unanticipated additional costs to the system.”
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The CSD board expected the exemption to cost the school district a $1.2 million incremental increase over the existing exemptions. In 2019 however, it cost the district an extra $3.5 million in reduced revenues, while in 2020 it cost an estimated $5.7 million.
To cover the gap, the CSD Board raised the millage rate from 18.66 to 20.25 and re-evaluated its operations. Committee member Gwen Hall stated that in the lower elementary schools the number of paraprofessionals was reduced and also Spanish was cut from four days to three days. In addition, the system dipped into its reserves to balance the budget.
The committee was charged with reducing the cost of the exemption to the originally planned $1.2 million while preserving as much of the exemption as possible, especially for those on limited incomes. The total amount of senior school tax exemptions will be budgeted at $4.3 million.
To that end, the committee recommends two separate exemptions: One for seniors 65-69, based on adjusted Federal adjusted median income, with an exemption value adjusted to reflect home values. The total amount of that exemption will be capped at $1.1 million
Seniors 70+ will also receive an income-based exemption while the rest of the budgeted amount, no more than $3.2 million, will be distributed to all seniors who are 70+ regardless of income. Utz stated that most or all of the existing exemption could be preserved for homeowners who are over 70, with the caveat that the data the calculations are based on must be very carefully evaluated in order to avoid repeating the problems created by the 2016 exemption.
The committee plans to recommend that the CSD board get a professional analysis to get detailed information on demographics and income so dollar amounts can be calculated more precisely.
“We can’t afford to do a quick and dirty back of the envelope calculation again,” said Utz.
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Gwin Hall, another committee member, pointed out that reducing the tax burden on seniors means increasing it on everyone else, including other vulnerable populations.
“There’s so much conversation about keeping Decatur affordable so that we can maintain diversity, including economic diversity,” Hall said. “There are certainly policy interests for giving seniors tax breaks, and we’ve talked about a lot of them. How does that impact other vulnerable populations who don’t qualify for the senior exemption?”
Committee members discussed ways to engage and inform the public through meetings and neighborhood organizations and emphasized the need to alert seniors who currently receive the exemption about potential changes. Mailers were suggested for those seniors who don’t have internet.
“We have their names and addresses. It’s not like a complete Pokemon hunt,” said committee member Paula Collins.
The committee will make a presentation at the next school board meeting on Sept. 8, and will also provide a written report to the CSD board.
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