As tax commissioners around the state prepare to send out property tax bills, local governments are doing their part by setting their annual millage rate. The millage rate elected officials set for any given year has lasting effects well after the year in which it is set, often setting a precedent for the same rate, or higher, in the future.
In Evans County, as the Board of Education has dealt with pushback and anger from citizens over the proposed millage rate, those property owners over the age of 65+ are singing a new tune: paying school taxes as a senior citizen is taxation without representation. At least that is what a group of activists recently attending the meetings say. Some are even working to find out how to push for a permanent homestead exemption for senior citizen property tax bills – but only for the school millage rate.
Should Evans County do that? Would it be a good thing for the county? How would it affect education? Can it even be done?
The rundown, the process, and the pros and cons can be complicated. The numbers below are strictly for the Board of Education and do not include mills, valuations, or collections for the county generally or for any city.
A quick primer
A “mill” is the rate at which parcels of real property are taxed. In Evans County, the millage rate is calculated on 40% of the fair market value determined by the county tax assessor.
FORMULA: Property tax levied on property = (mill rate x taxable property value) divided by 1,000
For example, if the mill rate is 7 and a taxpayer’s personal residence has a taxable value of $150,000, then, using the calculation formula, the homeowner’s property tax bill for his residence is $1,050.
In Evans County, the millage rate for the school system is 14.399. That means for every $1,000 assessed for tax purposes, the property owner owes $14.399.
How much money is Evans County collecting?
The 2017 tax digest has not yet been approved by the state, so the most recent numbers are from 2016. For those interested, the 2017 tax digest should be ready in October.
Evans County has 6,437 parcels of land over 125,107.36 acres* in its tax digest. 389 of them are tax exempt, meaning they are churches, schools, cemeteries, or government buildings. The 2016 Census reports 182.85 square miles of land.
40% of the TOTAL tax digest for education funding in Evans County is valued at $189,079,548.
In 2016, the Evans County Board of Education collected $3,215,380 from property taxes Other money comes in by way of fees, state funding, federal funding, and grants. This does not include the money the school system collects through the E-SPLOST, but keep in mind – SPLOST money can only be used for capital expenditures like buildings, renovations, technology, etc. It cannot go toward operating expenses or salaries.
Due to homestead exemptions already in place, the school board already foregoes $393,708.31 annually – mostly due to conservation exemptions, agriculture stipulations, and homestead exemptions per the state. This $393,708.31 is just over the 10% threshold of what the county does collect.
Who is paying taxes in Evans County?
Evans County does not have any special tax exemptions in place. Those eligible for a property tax exemption currently are receiving such because of the laws governing at the state level.
Currently, counties in Georgia do not maintain information on property owners. That means it is difficult to know exactly who is paying taxes in Evans County. Some landowners own a considerable amount of property outside of just where they live while others have just their plot and structure. Some have farmland in Evans but live in Tattnall or Bulloch. There are many scenarios, so it would be virtually impossible to truly know who is paying taxes in Evans County when seeking information on demographics unless you’re willing to contact every property owner in the county and track the information yourself. This was confirmed with the Evans County Tax Commissioner’s Office on Thursday.
We can, however, look at U.S. Census numbers from 2016. While it goes without saying that 100% of the county population does NOT own land, the findings offer an interesting breakdown.
- The owner occupied housing rate from 2011 to 2015 was 63.6%
- The Median mortgage for 2011 to 2015 was $1,053
- The median rent for 2011 to 2015 was $614
Let’s take a look at the county-wide exemptions already in place. Remember, all of these are because of state law.
|Type of Exemption||Number of people using it||40% value of property NOT taxed because of exemptions|
|100% Disabled Veteran||17||$596,432|
|Forest Land & Protection||13||$999,491|
|Disable Vet OVER 65 years old||1||$51,920|
Also keep in mind that the $27,342,754 is just 40% of the value. The true value is found by multiplying by 2.5, which means the exemption land value at 100% is $68,356,885.
How would Evans County go about establishing a property tax exemption for seniors?
An exemption like this can only be done by way of the Georgia General Assembly, meaning state representative Bill Werkheiser or state senator Jack Hill would have to carry local legislation in the legislature to be passed by both chambers in order for Evans County to have the exemption.
The trend to provide homestead exemptions for taxpayers over the age of 65+ is growing, but usually applies to counties with a much larger tax base.
In Glynn County, school exemptions are provided in tiers for those 62 and older and a higher rate for those 65 and older. Additional exemptions are permitted for seniors who have an income (or combined spousal income) less than $40,000 annually. Glynn County, however, has a population of over 83,000 and pulls the tax base of property owners on St. Simons and Sea Islands.
Fulton County in 2015 attempted to pass a homestead exemption, but defined seniors as ‘70 years of age and older.’ The legislature ultimately refused to pass the measure. It did not pass in 2016 or 2017, either.
Gilmer County in north Georgia has a 100% tax exemption for seniors over 65. While the community appreciates the senior-friendly statute, unintended consequences have affected funding by way of loopholes. Seniors who own commercial properties but have a mobile home or small apartment on the back of a large lot are exempt from taxes, costing the Board of Education thousands. Things are much different in the larger Gwinnett County.
The Good & The Bad
Evans County isn’t pulling from a very large pool. A few of the disadvantages include:
- 15.8% of the Evans County population is over the age of 65 according to the 2016 Census. While you cannot assume 100% of those 65 and older own property, the number even at 10% could have a large impact on taxes collected. Essentially, the school board could end up collecting property taxes on 600 fewer parcels in the event of a senior exemption.
- Additionally, 26.% percent of the population is under 18, which means they definitely don’t own property. An exemption could mean upwards of 40% of the population doesn’t pay taxes simply by default – and that’s before you add all the middle-aged renters.
- It could harm the school system. The Evans BOE already receives more than 3x the money from the state and federal government than it does from local dollars. The system is already at the mercy of the state and federal politicians, but placing more weight on the scale toward the state and feds could harm the school system. If the school system worsens, it will be more difficult to recruit businesses to come to Evans County. Employers do look at those numbers.
- Other counties who have done it which they had not. In both Bryan County and Wayne County, citizens and elected officials alike wish the exemption had not been given, but once it is in place, it can never be undone.
A few of the advantages:
- Senior citizens who are not benefiting from the school system, and will not again, are not being taxed without representation.
- It reduces the cost of living for seniors on a fixed income.
If an exemption was to be enacted, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be 100%. It can be set any amount. 25%, 50%, 75%…or it can be set not to exceed a certain monetary value. Another option would be to cap it at the dollar amount spent per child. Your state elected officials craft the legislation as the county sees fit. In Pickens County, it is based on age and income.
Evans County residents, as a whole, will have to come together to find a happy medium for seniors on a fixed income and the working-age groups of property owners who want to maintain a certain level of funding and resources for the local school system. It would be unlikely that the Board of Education would support a measure like this.
Below are some pieces of legislation that have been in the legislature in recent years with regard to exemptions:
2015 – HB 522 – Homestead exemption
2016 -HB 740 – Homestead exemption for lowest 5% performance →
*Acreage in the tax digest could vary. Some plots do not have exact numbers.