School Board Requests Referendum to Cap 65/5 at $150K, Add Residency Requirement

Cliff Auman, who whipped up panic about the 65/5 tax exemption amendment on Facebook, addresses the school board at its Monday evening meeting.

The idea is not to kill the 65/5 school tax exemption, explained Superintendent Jan Harris and the Dade County Board of Education at a special called meeting Monday night, just to tweak it so it will do what it was designed to do--provide tax relief for the county's elderly--while, incidentally, keeping it from killing the local schools.

In 2005, Dade voted to give residents 65 and older a blanket school tax exemption on their homes and up to five acres of land. The two big changes that Dr. Harris and the current school board propose to the 65/5 exemption now is to cap it at $150,000 and require those claiming it to have lived in the county for at least five years.

But another two important points that Dr. Harris and board members kept reiterating at the Feb. 4 meeting were:

  1. that all they were voting on now was the right to put the proposed changes before the voters in a public referendum--"Any action the board takes tonight changes nothing but just starts the wheel turning," said the super; and

  2. that those Dade seniors who have already claimed the exemption will be allowed to keep it unaltered and in its entirety. "We're not asking any of them to give it back," said Daniel Case, the newest school board member, who just took his seat in January.

Dr. Harris said the original idea behind 65/5 was to spare older Dade residents of modest means the burden of paying school taxes. But now, she pointed out, people moving to Dade to build million-dollar houses could use the exemption to pay the same school tax--$0--as longtime residents with more modest means. The average house in Dade now going for $150,000, according to the county tax office, that seemed a good place to cap the benefit, in order to grant tax relief to the elderly at the same time as keeping the exemption from strangling the schools.

Requiring the five-year residency period to claim the benefit is a notion that came from the campaign of Dade's newly elected voice in the Georgia House of Representatives, Colton Moore, to whom Dr. Harris made frequent reference during her presentation of the proposed amendments.

Dr. Harris and the board said the number of residents who had claimed the 65/5 exemption since it went into effect was 1458, and multiplying those people times the estimated amount of school tax they would have paid, Dr. H and crew said the schools were losing approximately $1.3 million per year at this point, and stand to lose more each year as additional Baby Boomers hit 65 and opt out.

"It's not hypothetical. It's not fictitious," said board member Johnny Warren. "It's real money that we're losing."

​And Daniel Case said the lost income put the school tax burden on people like himself, young parents with children in school, who would rather spend the money feeding them and saving for their college tuition.

(Photo, despite nameplate: Daniel Case.)

Warren said the original amount of potential loss the school board had been cited when, under the leadership of former county executive Ben Brandon, the exemption had been introduced were wildly off. "They were nowhere near correct," he said.

Rex Blevins, the former school board member who has fought 65/5 and other tax breaks that drain school revenues, sometimes via the court system, since they were enacted, put it more forcefully: "Ben Brandon lied through his teeth."

But the feisty public education activist wasn't giving the B of E a pass either: "The school board sat on its hands and let this happen," he said.

Blevins spoke during the citizens' participation part of the meeting, pointing out the schools' revenue drains included not just 65/5 but two tax freeze options offered county homeowners, over which he had unsuccessfully sued the county. He said that the number of 65/5 claimants was not 1458 but the much higher 2300, losing the schools over $2 million a year so far. Blevins spoke until school board chairperson Carolyn Bradford called time on his finger shaking.

Blevins was generally in favor of amending 65/5 but warned the board it was "a drop in the bucket."

Senior resident Melvin Bradford (left) also addressed the board, saying he'd been yanked here from his peaceful fishing by a storm of hysterical texts and Facebook messages warning that the school board intended to strip tax benefits from the elderly. He said he was relieved to learn it wasn't so and wished he had kept fishing. "I got the wrong story," he said.

Also rising to address the board was once and potentially future political hopeful Cliff Auman, who may have been one source of the wrong story Bradford got. "The Board of Education is discussing and voting tonight at 6 PM on a potential chain of events that could lead to a huge increase in annual property taxes for our citizens who are age 65 and older. Please share this and more importantly if you can find the time, call an elderly relative or friend and inform them of this," Auman posted on his Facebook page Monday afternoon. Auman ran for Dade County executive chairman in 2016 against incumbent and present executive Ted Rumley.

Auman at the meeting asked whether the school board had considered what effect amending the generous school tax exemption would have on Dade's attractiveness to retirees. "Whether you like it or not, it is a draw into Dade County," he said.

He also challenged the board on its lack of public notice for the special called Monday meeting, which had been announced Friday afternoon and only hit the local press Monday morning. "I understand that Friday is legal notice, but is it right?" asked Auman.

Dr. Harris, who seemed a little dazed at the social media attention the meeting had generated, said that Rep. Colton Moore had come into town and met with her and the board on Thursday and had told her that in order to go before lawmakers during this session, the proposal should have been in by Feb. 4 but with weather delays could still just make it. Thus she had called the meeting as soon as she could.

The board voted unanimously to pass its resolution in favor of the amendment. The resolution will now go before the Georgia Legislature with the view to getting it on a referendum ballot. When the actual referendum will take place was not a matter of speculation at the Monday night meeting.

The Planet will continue reporting on this story as it develops.

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