Getting meaningful ad valorem property tax relief for our senior citizens was a major promise I made to voters when I first ran for the Georgia House of Representatives in 2000.
Eventually, I came to understand that ad valorem property taxes were the most hated taxes by Georgians. And, after 12 years of writing weekly columns in the local newspapers, I have written on this subject more than any other.
It took four years in Lumpkin County and eight years in Dawson County before senior citizens in these two counties were able to join the ranks of most other Georgia counties with a meaningful Senior Homestead Exemption program.
During the process I was called a Communist by one local elected official in the media for sponsoring this legislation.
Members of the various taxing bodies who thought they would lose tax revenue called me other names.
After the legislation passed by an overwhelming majority, some of these same folks were the first to sign up for and receive the benefits of senior tax relief.
Providing meaningful ad valorem property tax relief for seniors is not Communism, it's a good old American principle.
When I started, many of the poorer land owners told me of having to sell off acres just to pay property taxes.
I met several owners whose total income came from social security, yet because they owned 50 to 100 acres, they were considered to be rich.
Fifty acres valued at $10,000 plus an acre made them wealthy. Even placing most of the land in a Conservation Use Covenant still left a hefty tax bill for owners drawing less than a $1,000 per month in benefits.
After the 2001 Session, I visited the state's Property Tax Division to learn about assessment and valuation. I learned that most Georgia counties had already instituted some form of meaningful Senior Homestead Exemption.
About this same time many homeowners were tired of an ever growing tax bill, while others living in large doublewides saw their taxes declining.
I learned that "mobile home" was not a category of residential property, and that to some extent it was up to the county how the tax value on mobile or modular homes was derived.
Over the next year I tried to drum up support for a residential property tax freeze.
This would have done two things. First, even though property values continued to rise, the taxes would stay the same unless the governing authority raised the millage rate. This would stop the "backdoor" tax increases. If the residence was sold, the new owner would have a different property tax based on the new Fair Market Value.
Second, those persons on fixed incomes could stop dreading the yearly tax increases.
As you know, this idea went nowhere because the Democratically-controlled General Assembly was not up to the intense lobbying from local governments and school boards.
We did put on the November 2002 ballot a referendum to increase the homestead exemption from $2,000 to $6,000.
A property tax freeze for two years was finally passed in 2009 under a Republican-controlled General Assembly.
In 2004 I introduced HB 1084 which would have increased the homestead exemption from Lumpkin County school taxes from $6,000 to $120,000 of Assessed Value ($300,000 Fair Market Value) for Lumpkin County residents 70 and older.
Unfortunately, it took the Justice Department pre-clearance process so long that it could not be placed on the primary ballot. The bill was reintroduced and passed in 2005.
Most residential property owners believed their ad valorem taxes were too high in 2006 and began to protest the increased property valuations received that summer.
The "backdoor" tax increases were leading to ever increasing tax burdens.
In August 2007, I wrote in my weekly newspaper column: "About 1,200 appeals have been filed following the recent property revaluation. It will take the Lumpkin County Board of Equalization over three months to hear all of those appeals. The folks want property tax relief."
A "backdoor" tax increase occurs when the escalating value of your property causes the new tax bill to be higher than the old one, while the millage rate remains the same. This process provides cover for elected officials and taxing bodies. Escalating property values result in the city, county and school system getting more money without a change in millage rates.
Three bills were introduced in the 2008 Session that allowed Lumpkin county citizens to vote on three aspects of Senior Citizen Tax Relief.
First, the age for exemption from school tax would be lowered from 70 to 65 years of age; second, senior tax relief would be applicable to Lumpkin County's portion of the ad valorem tax; and third, senior tax relief would also apply to the City of Dahlonega.
The voters approved all three bills by more than 80 percent and the rest is history.
Similar bills were introduced and passed in 2008 for Dawson County.
In 2010 bills were passed that allowed the Dawson County voters to correct/change the 2008 legislation.
These bills excluded social security and disability benefits from the income limit and gave seniors 70 and over $300,000 exemption from the Fair Market Value of homesteaded property for school taxes without any income restrictions.
It bears repeating: The 65+ Senior/Disabled Homestead Exemptions, like all other homestead exemptions, do not cause the taxing entities to lose any tax revenue. Homestead exemptions are a tax shift from taxpayers who qualify for the exemption to those who do not qualify.
In Lumpkin County, after the first year of the Senior Homestead Exemption program, some 1,200 parcels qualified while the remaining 15,000 + parcels had their ad valorem property taxes increased by an average of about $34 each.
Maybe that's why the legislation passed by more than 80 percent, while the senior population was at 12 percent.
This seems like ancient history in today's economy of declining property values.
Never fear, when the housing market rights itself, the era of "backdoor" property tax increases will rear its ugly head again.
Rep. Amos Amerson can be reached at 689 N. Chestatee Street, Dahlonega, GA 30533; phone (706) 864-6589; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or contact Gerald Lewy at (706) 344-7788.