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Senior tax exemption on ballots

COVINGTON - Voters who participate in the Presidential Preference Primary on Feb. 5 will also have the chance to decide on an issue of local importance in a special election - whether senior citizens should receive an additional exemption on school property taxes.

If approved, seniors age 65 and older whose annual gross income does not exceed $25,000 would receive a $30,000 homestead exemption from Newton County school district ad valorem taxes.

The referendum would increase both the allowed exemption and income requirements currently in place.

Currently, seniors age 65 and older receive a $20,000 homestead exemption if annual adjusted gross income does not exceed $15,000 per year, according to Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler.

If the referendum passes, the school system could lose approximately $587,000 in local property tax revenue, according to an administrative services report prepared by Associate Superintendent Deborah Robertson.

"The exemption and income levels were ones that could allow relief for eligible seniors and be least detrimental to other groups of taxpayers - any time one group of taxpayers is given relief, there is typically a shift of the tax burden to other groups of taxpayers - either now or in the future," Newton County Schools Superintendent Steve Whatley said.

When asked whether the school system intended to make up the lost revenue by increasing the millage rate, Whatley responded, "Obviously, if the referendum passes, it will negatively impact the school system's revenue. Setting the millage rate is a function of the Board of Education and is reviewed annually."

The referendum is the result of the work of Newton County Citizens for Tax Relief Inc., a group of senior citizens who petitioned the Board of Education for property tax relief last spring.

The group is now making the same request to the county, having gone before the Board of Commissioners at its Jan. 15 meeting.

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he supports the effort.

"The seniors have worked for years and years to make this county great ... there comes a time when you want to enjoy the fruits of your hard labor," he said.

At Henderson's suggestion, commissioners tabled the request until their Feb. 5 meeting for more time to assess the impact on property tax revenues.

"I have no problem with that. If they will do it at their February meeting, they will still have time to introduce local legislation in Atlanta and have it on the November ballot, and it can still take effect Jan. 1," said Frank Davis, president of Newton County Citizens for Tax Relief.

Davis described the group as a "loosely organized but very active group.

"Senior citizens are the ones who vote. When it comes to something involving them, they're very active," he said.

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

SideBar: At a glance

This is the question pertaining to a seniors' homestead exemption as it will appear on the Feb. 5 Special Election Ballot:

"Shall the Act be approved which provides a homestead exemption for maintenance and operations purposes in the amount of $30,000 of the assessed value of the homestead for residents of that county who are 65 years of age or over and whose annual adjusted gross income does not exceed $25,000?"