A large majority of Bulloch County voters, like most voters statewide, said “yes” this week to a referendum of special concern for the nonprofit, charitable homebuilding organization Habitat for Humanity, as well as to two amendments to Georgia’s Constitution.
Statewide, the vote count on Statewide Referendum A – the last thing on Tuesday’s ballot – was 3,999,220 “yes” to 1,253,011 “no,” so it was approved by a 73% majority. As approved, the referendum exempts from Georgia property taxes real estate owned by public charities with 501(c)(3) federal tax-exempt status if the property is held exclusively for development or rehabilitation of single-family homes to be financed to buyers on zero-interest loans.
If you think that sounds tailor-made for Habitat for Humanity, you’re right.
“I was sitting in the Senate gallery when it was approved, and the senator who introduced it called it the Habitat for Humanity Bill,” said Kathy Jenkins, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County.
That was a different senator, but the state lawmaker who actually got the ball rolling was the late Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, Jenkins said. She was in Atlanta for a Habitat for Humanity International conference in March 2019 when Habitat’s state director invited her to go to the Capitol for the Senate vote.
Because it affects taxation, the legislation had to originate in the House, where it was introduced by Rep. Matthew Gambill, R- Cartersville, as House Bill 344.
The tax exemption will have a direct effect on Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County, which after the recent gift of another parcel now owns 15 vacant lots for future construction of homes. Previously, the county Board of Assessors had exempted Habitat’s vacant properties, but halted that exemption a year ago, Jenkins said.
Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County continued to receive an exemption on its ReStore headquarters and thrift store. But properties held by the charity for future development, here as with Habitat affiliates elsewhere in the state, had no official exemption under state law.
The tax on each of Bulloch Habitat’s 15 vacant lots averages roughly $100 a year, according to Jenkins.
“We’re talking $1,500, so in terms of the impact on the tax rolls, it’s minimal, but for us, $1,500, you know, that’s all the windows in a house, and then once the house is built, instead of the county getting a hundred dollars a year in taxes on that, that is now taxed like a regular three- or four-bedroom house, and because we’re not paying the taxes, we’re able to build faster,” she said.
So the county and city governments stand to gain far more from faster completion of Habitat homes than they lose by having to exempt the vacant lots, Jenkins reasons.
Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County currently has three homes under construction for already identified, first-time home buyers who contribute “sweat equity” through volunteer work and helping build. The last of those houses will be the 59th since the Habitat chapter opened here in 1991.
Some large urban Habitat affiliates will receive a tax break dwarfing that of the Bulloch chapter, Jenkins noted. Another charity could qualify for the new tax exemption but would have to copy Habitat’s model of operation, she said.
In Bulloch County, 20,751 voters, or 72.5% of those participating, said “yes” to the referendum, while 7,871 voters checked “no.” So this tracked closely with the statewide result.
Meanwhile, 23,150 Bulloch County voters, or 81% of those participating, voted “yes” on state Constitutional Amendment 1, which authorizes the Legislature to dedicate revenues from fees or taxes to the specific public purposes for which there are intended. The count of “no” votes within Bulloch was 5,427.
Statewide, 81.6% of voters approved. The count was 3,808,022 “yes” to 857,838 “no.”
Previously, special taxes and fees collected for specified purposes could be transferred to the state’s general fund and spent on just about anything.
Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who died last December, was chairman of the Rules Committee in the House when he introduced the resolution calling for this amendment in early 2019. Powell said that of $230 million raised over the previous decade by the state’s scrap tire tax and landfill fee, $150 million had gone into the general fund and not to clean up waste sites as intended, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Under the new amendment, the legislature can reassign money from a designated special fund only if the governor suspends the fund because of a financial emergency in which total state revenue falls 3% or more short of projections or declines for three consecutive months. That emergency power could be used only three times in 10 fiscal years.
Statewide, Amendment 2, which waives the sovereign immunity of local governments and state agencies to a limited extent when they act outside their legal authority or in violation of the Georgia or U.S. Constitution, was approved by 74.4% of voters. The vote count was 3,446,283 “yes” to 1,183,231 “no.”
In Bulloch County, 71.4% of voters approved. The local vote count was 20,208 “yes” to 8,107 “no.”
The amendment allows lawsuits seeking declaratory relief in the superior courts of Georgia counties. In other words, these courts will now be able to block actions by counties, cities or state agencies that are judged to be illegal, subject to appeal to higher courts. But this will apply only to actions taken Jan. 1, 2021 or after.
The amendment doesn’t allow for the award of monetary damages, attorneys’ fees or litigation costs under any lawsuit that it authorizes, state Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, explained in a newsletter, published as a Sept. 29 column in the Statesboro Herald. He summarized all three ballot questions and advocated voting for them.