A school property tax exemption for senior citizens wasn’t on the agenda as such, but the Bulloch County Board of Education heard from people on both sides of the issue for nearly an hour during “public participation” Thursday night.
Of the 19 people who spoke on the topic, more than twice as many spoke against the exemption request – or at least in opposition to an age-only exemption qualification – as spoke for it. However, seniors seeking the exemption, after an organizational meeting that drew more than 75 people on July 29, had said they were selecting three or four people to speak for them at Thursday’s meeting.
Carolyn Akins, who stated specifics of the exemption proposal about 15 minutes into the comment time, seemed to sum up both sides of the argument.
“I have no children but have paid school taxes for the past 47 years, and like other counties throughout Georgia, we firmly believe that upon reaching age 65, all senior citizens should be exempt from paying school taxes,” Akins said. “There are some who disagree, saying that blanket exemption for senior citizens homes would be a mistake financially and morally.”
But individual senior citizens would have to apply for the exemption, so any who wanted to continue paying school taxes could do so simply by not applying, she said.
“We are asking for an exemption on our homes and would still be paying taxes on all other property,” Akins said. “Paying this tax causes undue hardship for many senior homeowners. Some have had to borrow money to pay their taxes. Most seniors are living on a fixed income, and they need this money to pay for medicine, food, home repairs, et cetera.”
‘100 percent relief’
The pro-exemption group was requesting “100 percent relief from the Bulloch County property school tax levy at age 65, without income limitations,” she explained. On behalf of the group, she asked the board to make a decision as soon as possible so the request could be sent to the Georgia General Assembly in January.
How much land would be allowed in an exempt homestead, such as three acres or five acres, would be up to the board, she said Saturday.
If approved by the Bulloch County BOE and the state Legislature, the request would eventually come back as a referendum for Bulloch County voter approval.
Akins provided BOE members and the superintendent copies of a slide show and memorandum prepared by Blake Doss, policy analyst in the state House Budget and Research Office, for Rep. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet.
Other counties do it
“Nearly 100 counties had some type of age-based homestead exemption by 2013, with over half of those counties using some type of age-based exemption with no income limit,” Doss had reported. “Moreover, nearly 90 percent of the state’s population was living in a jurisdiction with some type of age-based property exemption by 2012, with about 45 percent living in a jurisdiction that had no income limit.”
Georgia has 159 counties. By 2010, 54.7 percent of Georgia’s county school districts had age-based exemptions, according to Doss’ chart, which showed the number has been growing since 1970.
These are local exemptions, in addition to some income-limited exemptions available by state mandate in all counties.
In Bulloch County, which now has an estimated 77,296 residents, 11.5 percent, or 8,889 people, are age 65 or older, Akins noted from Doss’ report.
With the Bulloch County Tax Assessors’ office as her source, Akins said that 1,302 of those residents 65 and older own property and together are currently paying $462,218 in school tax. The Statesboro Herald did not find Chief Appraiser John Scott in his office Friday afternoon to verify these numbers.
Horace Mann invoked
Chris Brkich, a local business owner and Bulloch County Schools parent, spoke against the exemption request. He noted that the idea of property taxes as a way to fund public schools was advanced by Horace Mann, “widely regarded as the father of public education in America” in the 1830s.
“Horace Mann argued that as members of a civilized society, we have a responsibility to ensure the best possible outcomes for our society, and this can only be achieved through a common school available to all, supported financially through property taxes,” Brkich said. “Our responsibilities to each other, much like our unalienable rights as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, do not end simply because we have reached the arbitrary age of 65.”
He suggested that people of retirement age need the public schools more than ever because they educate future doctors and nurses and help maintain a safe and civil society.
Nan Rushing speaks
Retired teacher Nan Rushing, 90, identified herself as the oldest taxpayer present. This year, just the school-funding portion of her property tax is $955.84, she said.
“I have to pay income tax, sales tax (including) SPLOST tax, school tax, property tax and on and on and on,” Rusing said. “I started teaching in 1948, so my fixed income is lower than what it is now when teachers retire, and out of this fixed income I also have to pay for insurances, home, farm and auto, … , groceries, utilities, medication, doctors’ co-pay….”
A widow with no income from her husband’s Social Security, she has no biological relatives nearby and so has to fend for herself, she said.
“But you know what, if you look back in the Bible it says, God said to take care of the widows and the orphans,” Rushing said.
Britton McKay, a parent and a Georgia Southern University accounting professor, serves as treasurer of the Parent Teacher Organization at Julia P. Bryant Elementary School. The PTO raised almost $25,000 last year, for gift cards for teachers “to alleviate a little bit of the burden on the school supplies that they have to buy out of their own pockets,” and supplement funding for playground expansion, among other things, she said.
McKay noted that Bulloch County’s millage rate for school taxes was already lower than any of the neighboring counties, at 9.427 mills, and noted that Chatham County’s is almost twice that, AT 18.881.
“We already have property tax exemptions in place for senior citizens, and if those need to be expanded somewhat, then we need to look across the board at all taxes, not just school taxes,” McKay said. “Why are we taking money directly away from schools that are already extremely efficient in what they do and definitely not (over)funded by any means?”
Both sides organized
Some supporters of the exemption request brought small posters with slogans such as “Seniors need tax breaks.” But opponents had done some organizing too, especially through a social media group called Advocates for Bulloch County Schools.
One opposition organizer was Jane Page, now a minister after retiring as a Georgia Southern education professor who previously taught in Bulloch County’s schools.
Although her state retirement system payments started out in 2005 as 60 percent of the average from her highest two years’ salary, cost of living raises continued for retirees during years when active educators received no raises. Now, her retirement pay is more than her salary was, she said.
“So people talk about fixed retirement, but those people in the Georgia teacher (retirement) system, wow, we are very, very, blessed, and many of us are happy, happy, happy to support you all and to support the teachers and support the children,” Page said. “Please don’t let this be age-based. If there are people who have financial hardships, please look at something like not only income, but wealth.”
BOE Chairman Mike Sparks had recited the board’s policy for public participation remarks, including the usual three-minute limit, and most speakers stuck to it.
“It is very refreshing to hear from all the different perspectives in our community, and I agree, as many of you said, it’s good to have dialogue,” Superintendent Charles Wilson told the crowd. “We need to talk through these things, and to be able to do that in a civil manner is something nice to see that example set for our community, so thank you all.”
Wilson counted five speakers in favor of the exemption and 14 who “at some level or another were speaking against, blanket exemptions at least,” he said Friday.
He and Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown had compared notes on what they heard, but Wilson has not heard from board members yet on how to proceed, he said.
“We thought we heard a strong voice in favor of, people are willing to pay property taxes to support public education, that seemed to be a pretty strong common theme,” Wilson said. “But there also seemed to be a pattern of consideration, if possible, for people of lower income levels, and not just income, but lower wealth.”
Creating such an exemption, he said, would be “a huge challenge,” with school system officials requiring help from county tax officials and not knowing if it would be possible to validate wealth and income levels.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.