The Bulloch County Board of Education is not sending forward any proposal for a 2020 referendum to create a local school-funding property tax exemption for senior citizens.
Back in July, a group of about 80 people, most of them age 60 and up, met with state Rep. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet, who told them an exemption request would need to come from the local school board in time to be acted on by the Georgia General Assembly in its January-March session if it was to be returned to local voters in a referendum next year. Spokespersons for the seniors group then spoke to the school board in August, but so did a number of citizens opposed to creating such an exemption. The board had its own discussion in September.
Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson announced his position a month ago, in the middle of the Nov. 14 board meeting. He first noted that he and board members had received a lot of feedback from within the community, and said that he and Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Troy Brown had “looked at the pros and cons” and “the availability of exemptions for our senior citizens.”
“At this point, I am not going to recommend an additional exemption, a seniors’ tax exemption,” Wilson said. “That’s from me as the superintendent, based on what I have and the information I’ve received back. I’d respect it if, as a board, you wanted to make a recommendation otherwise, but at this point I do not believe it is appropriate that the superintendent make a recommendation.”
As he alluded to by speaking of “the availability of exemptions” and “an additional exemption,” Georgia has several optional, statewide property tax exemptions, including two limited exemptions that are specifically for older property owners, subject to income limitations.
What the senior citizens group sought was an exemption from school tax without those limitations. The group had noted that a large number of Georgia counties have some kind of additional tax exemption for seniors.
Got no word
William Emley, who had been one of the spokespersons for the Senior Citizens of Bulloch County group on previous occasions, attended Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. regular meeting and signed up to speak during “public comment” time.
Board of Education Chairman Mike Sparks, the member from District 2, read a statement that is always recited before the public comments, setting a three-minute individual limit and other conditions and concluding with, “The board cannot vote, comment or respond to issues or comments made during public participation.”
Emley noted this passage and took issue with it.
“How does the board provide feedback to the people that do address the board with comments or concerns, because if we can’t address it at the meeting and we don’t address it at the work session, how does the individual get the feedback of whatever they propose?” he asked. “If it’s not in the Statesboro Herald, again, how do we get the feedback?”
Looking for feedback on the senior citizen group’s tax exemption proposal, he said, he had found none.
“To my understanding, none of the four (spokespersons) have ever gotten any feedback, has this been approved, not approved, is it dead on arrival? Where is it? We don’t know,” Emley said.
He said he had made phone calls to his district BOE member and emailed members and never received a response.
Wanted a vote
In fact, the Herald did not report Wilson’s statement after he made it in November. But the reporter had called Emley earlier Thursday and asked him whether he was aware of what Wilson had said. Emley said he did not think the superintendent should get to decide because the group wanted the question put on a ballot for voters to make the decision.
Emley then came to the board meeting.
“We were trying to get this proposal in place to be put on the ballot so that all people of Bulloch County could vote on this issue, either approve it or not approve it.” he told the board. “I’m hearing rumors, and I don’t believe in rumors. So again, what I’m looking for is, has this been approved and passed on to the Legislature to be put on the 2020 ballot or has it not, and if it hasn’t, what would be the reason why…?”
No board members replied, but later in the meeting, Wilson noted the statement he had made the previous month.
Asked after Thursday’s meeting whether the board would take any action on the exemption request, Sparks said, “Since the superintendent made the recommendation, you need to ask him.”
Also approached after the meeting, District 4 board member April Newkirk noted comments she had made during an earlier open session, the board’s Sept. 26 work session where the exemption was a topic for board member input. Emley is a resident of District 4.
“As I said in the open session, I was kind of torn between I felt like the constituents should be able to vote on what taxes occur, but I also felt a duty from the oath of my office in support of the schools,” Newkirk said. “So I was honestly torn and really just kind of didn’t know what to do.”
“Most of the feedback that I got from constituents was not in favor of putting it on the ballot,” she added.
Thursday night’s regular meeting was the last scheduled in 2019. Afterward, Wilson confirmed that he had not received any indication from board members, since his November statement, that they wanted to act on the seniors’ exemption. The possibility would remain open for a member to make a motion from the floor during a meeting, he said.
“That’s really where it sits, but I’m not aware of anyone deciding to do that,” Wilson said.
He also confirmed that his “additional exemption” wording was meant to convey that there are available statewide exemptions, ranging from conservation-use status for agricultural land to partial exemptions specifically for seniors.
“I’m not recommending an additional exemption … and I received a lot of feedback from people in this community saying, ‘Why would you do that to the other taxpayers when we all share the burden together?’” he said.
At the Sept. 26 work session, Brown described the existing exemptions. He said the essential question was, "Does the board want to commit to a tax exemption in addition to Georgia's $10,000 elderly exemption?"
That means a $10,000 exemption in the value of a home as assessed for taxes, which actually amounts to the first $25,000 of the home's fair market value.
At the current millage rate, this yields a $90.38 tax savings on the current school-funding property tax for people 62 and older who meet income restrictions and apply for the exemption.
It is available only for a primary residence where the qualifying homeowner lives at least half of the year. To qualify, that homeowner can have no more retirement income than the exclusion set annually by the Social Security Administration, which was $68,644 this year, and no more than $10,000 earned income from non-retirement sources.
People and 65 and older can qualify for a $4,000 exemption from all county property taxes, but cannot “stack” these exemptions and must choose one, Brown said in his September presentation.
Georgia also has a basic homestead exemption of $2,000 assessed value, available to all homeowners for their primary residence.
Any of the exemptions must be applied for at the county Board of Tax Assessors office.