Enacting a school property tax exemption for Bulloch County senior citizens will take a while — if the Board of Education first supports it — Rep. Jan Tankersley told interested seniors Monday.
Between 75 and 80 people, most qualifying as seniors, filled the community building at Luetta Moore Park in Statesboro to talk about the topic. It was an organizational meeting as the group prepares to address the Bulloch County Board of Education during its 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 regular session.
Besides being the state representative whose district includes the largest portion of Bulloch County and the only one who resides in the county, Tankersley, R-Brooklet, chairs the House Intergovernmental Coordination Committee. It handles legislation specific to a county or city.
"My part actually would start if the Board of Education listens to you at your meeting and they make a motion and it passes that they are willing to give senior citizens — whatever age that is determined to be — a tax exemption," Tankersley said. "From that point, that's where it comes up to us, and it comes up to the House of Representatives, and it is considered a piece of local legislation."
If the Board of Education signs a letter stating that it has voted on the proposal and wants the state to take it up, a referendum will still have to be called, she noted. The bill, handled through her committee, would probably pass easily because no other counties would be affected, Tankersley said. But voters in Bulloch County would have the final say.
"So, it's not a short process, even if you move along pretty well with these meetings, and I applaud you for putting this together and have a venue so that folks can come and say how they feel about it," she said.
'No free rides'
Acknowledging that she too is a Bulloch County senior citizen, Tankersley said, "I would love a tax break, too," near the beginning of her remarks. But after noting the steps of the process, she also commented that "there are no free rides on the bus."
"When we get a break, including myself and my husband, because we fall in that 70-and-up range, the younger folks in this district are going to have to pick up, and probably the millage rate would go up for them," Tankersley said. "So they'll have to look at numbers, and you've got to get this process started."
After some local seniors have worked on this topic for years, Tankersley said, she thinks it's time for the Board of Education to "at least look at some numbers and be well informed about how many people that would impact."
She spoke between opening remarks by organizers Kay Anderson, Luree Bowen, Nan Rushing and Roger Branch and before a much longer round of input from individuals in the crowd.
Bowen, 81, a native of Bulloch County who returned here after a career as a professional writer, said senior property owners have paid their "debt to society" and have seen Georgia Southern University and other parts of the local economy "grow and grow and grow."
"We're grateful to the good Lord that our children were able to get a good education, but now, with Social Security coming in the way it is, maybe we're lucky enough to have a retirement check other than that, we need to have our taxes reduced, and one of the best ways we can do it is ask for that school tax," Bowen said.
Some of the leaders had suggested age 70 as the minimum qualifying age for the proposed exemption. By the end of Monday's gathering, the thinking had shifted to 65 as the general qualifying age, but with no firm conclusion, Bowen and Branch said Tuesday.
Some participants suggested an exemption for people who retire early because of disability. Ronnie Daniels, who identified himself as probably one of the youngest people attending, said that property owners still earning a salary or regular wages should continue paying the school tax, regardless of age.
"But what do you for the guy that's 63 years old and his employer said, 'Hey, I don't have a job for you no more because you're disabled'? …," Daniels said. "We need help."
He suggested making the exemption available whenever someone begins receiving Social Security or disability benefits.
This point of view may also be part of the presentations next week as three or four chosen spokespersons talk to the Board of Education, Bowen said.
In fact, Georgia has a partial statewide homestead exemption from property taxes levied for a school system, available to people age 62 and up who qualify. But it is limited to $10,000 of the homestead's assessed value, which is in effect $25,000 of market value. Only an individual or married couple making $10,000 or less annually in non-retirement income can qualify, but there is a higher exclusion of income from Social Security and other retirement and disability benefits, up to a total of $68,664, according to information on the Georgia Department of Revenue website.
Homeowners age 65 and older can also qualify, again subject to income limits, for a statewide exemption of up to $4,000 of assessed home value, which amounts to $10,000 market value, from all county property taxes.
But what participants in Monday's meeting expressed interest in was a complete, local exemption from property tax on a senior citizen's primary residence and a limited amount of attached property. They noted that a number of Georgia counties do this.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.