County to propose tax referendum

COVINGTON - Newton County senior citizens scored a double victory Tuesday night.

Not only did voters approve an additional tax exemption on school property taxes in a special election, but county commissioners voted to hold a similar referendum in July or November.

By a vote of 3-2, commissioners agreed to allow voters to decide whether seniors age 65 and older with an income of $25,000 or less should receive an additional $10,000 homestead exemption.

Such a measure would result in a loss in revenue of $436,682 to the county, according to Chief Tax Appraiser Tommy Knight.

Currently, seniors earning $15,000 or less receive a $16,000 local exemption plus a $4,000 exemption from the state.

A total of 3,188 parcels currently qualify for the exemption, for a total exemption of $51,008,000 Knight said.

That amounts to a total annual loss in revenue of $496,308

If the homestead exemption is raised by $10,000, an additional $310,192 would be lost, he said.

By raising the income level qualification from $15,000 to $25,000, approximately 500 new parcels would qualify, creating an additional possible loss of $126,490 for a total loss of $436,682.

Commissioners had also asked Knight to assess the impact of exempted seniors entirely from property taxes, which he estimated would result in a $1.629 million loss in revenues. Removing the income requirement would push that number closer to $1.9 million, he said.

Commissioners said they couldn't support a total exemption.

District 1 and District 5 Commissioners Mort Ewing and Monty Laster recommended delaying the vote until more information is available.

Ewing said that while he supports tax relief, he would like to wait to see if the General Assembly plans to provide any relief at the state level before acting locally.

Laster said he would prefer to wait until the county completes its budget process in June, adding that, "This year, there's going to be a budget shortfall."

But District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said it ought to be up to voters to decide.

His motion passed 3 to 2, with Ewing and Laster opposing.

If approved, seniors with an income of $25,000 or less would receive a total exemption of $30,000 - $26,000 locally and $4,000 from the state - effective on the 2009 tax digest.

Knight estimated that other taxpayers would be impacted by an additional $10 to $11 on their tax bills, if commissioners opt to keep the current millage rate of 9.73 mils.

County Attorney Tommy Craig said printing deadlines for ballots will determine whether the referendum is held during the July 15 General Primary or the Nov. 4 General Election.

"I think it went the way we wanted it too," said M.A. Turner, a member of Newton County Citizens for Tax Relief, the group that petitioned the county and school system for tax relief. "We were hoping for some relief and that's what we were asking for and were happy that we got it, because now it will help all of us seniors, you know. We wish we didn't have to pay any taxes at all, but we know we've got to pay some because the government's got to run and operate."

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.