A group of senior citizens met with State Rep. Rick Jasperse Friday in Bent Tree to look at options for older residents to gain some exemption from property taxes that fund schools.
About ten seniors, some of whom led previous efforts to gain a senior tax exemption, brought the issue out of hibernation with the organizational meeting.
Near the end of the meeting, Robert Winston summed up the status: “We’re off to a good start here. It will be interesting to see what happens when the story hits the streets. We need to get our facts and figures and see where we’re going to go with this.”
Friday’s roundtable organizer Walter Bogas said he has been spearheading efforts for at least three years trying to gain some type of senior property tax relief, but his efforts have not been well received thus far.
Bogas introduced the subject to Jasperse, saying seniors want some type of property tax exemption on school taxes. Based on the lengthy informal discussion, the seniors aren’t necessarily seeking full exemption from school taxes but feel they deserve some portion excused from yearly tax bills.
The discussion highlighted an initial challenge for research on what other counties offer in senior exemptions, the impacts in those counties and how particular exemption levels would affect school budgets, and the millage rate for non-seniors who may be forced to make up funding shortfalls.
Bob Crowl, involved in the issue previously, said it’s not easy to affix a definite dollar number to how a certain percentage exemption would play out. He said it would appear about 12 percent (Jasperse thought more like 18 percent) of Pickens residents are senior citizens, but added there are no records to substantiate that nor any easy way to translate that percent into the percentage of the tax base subject to be affected.
In other words, there hasn’t been any clear way to determine how many homes and properties are owned by seniors. Nor at this point are there any projections on what effect different exemptions would have on the tax digest, millage rate or budgets. Several seniors conceded that before any serious discussion can unfold, there is a need to come up with some kind of specific plan and determine its effect on the tax base. Jasperse pressed the group that before he could comment much, he would have to see those numbers.
Members of the group said they felt if other counties can offer such exemptions, then Pickens can offer something. Some thought the exemptions would make the county more senior friendly, and this might spur real estate/commercial growth enough to offset the taxes exempted.
Winston said, “Surrounding counties give a tax break. We don’t enjoy this in Pickens County. There is no good reason why we can’t do this.”
Janet Baughman, another member of the group, said if Pickens is seen as more attractive to senior citizens, it will help the real estate market and may spur more industrial growth.
Jasperse and the group agreed to work to develop some of the information needed to go forward.
They also sparred on some of the issue’s key points, including Jasperse’s insistence that there is no way to offer the exemption to seniors without requiring all remaining taxpayers to make up the shortfall.
“In reality this is not a tax reduction,” he said. “It’s a tax shift. Shifting the tax burden from one group to another. Tell it like it is.”
Senior Bill Chapman agreed it was a shift, but it is shifting the tax obligation to a group who uses the education services.
Bob Crowl said he considers it fair to shift the tax burden now onto younger people as they too will be seniors one day and can enjoy the reduction at that point.
When pressed as to whether or not he would support it, Jasperse said he would support working to develop a real proposal and educating people on the issues.
Jasperse also said he would support a straw poll ballot to get a general idea on how people are leaning on the issue.
“I have no problem putting something on a ballot.” he said. “But I’m rock solid on my position that we are clear about telling people all the facts.”
Several seniors, including Crowl, acknowledged they must come up with a plan that not only works for seniors but keeps schools funded without unfairly escalating taxes for non-seniors.
Crowl said when they originally began formulating a plan several years ago the economy was growing and property values were rising, making it easier to come up plans to cover the exemption shortfall without increasing everyone else’s taxes.
He said as seniors go forward this time, they need to realize they are working with “a different set of circumstances.”
Several times during the meeting when the discussion veered off topic to general school issues, Jasperse was quick and adamant to identify those questions as local school board issues, not something in his purview nor a topic for this meeting.
That all Pickens County seniors want the tax break is far from the truth. Arriving early to the meeting, the Progress reporter asked directions to it from a senior woman also entering the Bent Tree 19th Hole Restaurant.
“What meeting about seniors and taxes?” she replied. When told it was a meeting to see about seniors being exempted from school taxes, she made comment. “Hmmph,” This lady said. “They need to pay up. The schools are there for their children and grandchildren.”