Rep. Colton Moore hears from a Dade citizen at Sunday's town-hall-style meeting.
The Dade County Board of Education wanted to modify the so-called 65/5 school tax exemption for senior citizens--but not badly enough to attend a town-hall-style meeting on the subject on a sunny weekend afternoon.
School board members and Superintendent Jan Harris were conspicuously absent from the meeting held Sunday by District 1 Georgia Statehouse Rep. Colton Moore, at which 65/5 was expected to figure prominently, signaling their probable surrender before the first shot was fired in this latest skirmish over the tax break.
The board had on Feb. 4 passed a resolution asking Rep. Moore to draft local legislation for a referendum on modification of Dade's blanket school tax exemption, which spares citizens 65 or older the school tax assessed on their homes of whatever value and up to five acres of land. Moore, who took office in January, had campaigned on imposing a residency requirement on the exemption, which at the Feb. 24 meeting he described as the most generous senior tax break of all Georgia counties. The resolution the board passed on Feb. 4 also included a $150,000 cap on the exemption.
But at the town hall meeting, Moore was careful to disown the cap, stressing that it had been the school board's idea, not his. "I don't see that ever passing in our county," he said.
Moore said he'd gotten multiple alarmed calls from constituents in the days since the school board passed its resolution and had held the meeting to get an idea what kind of modification to 65/5 could feasibly pass a referendum. The meeting drew a respectable crowd of around 70, but if there were proponents of changing 65/5 in attendance they kept their mouths closed and their hands folded in their laps.
Except, that is, for Rex Blevins. Blevins did stand up to speak against 65/5 as he has since its advent in 2005, warning that 100 more property owners opt out of the school tax each year. He said that Lookout luxury development spearhead Frank Brock lures in homebuyers from parts unknown with the promise of no school taxes if they move to Dade County. And he warned that that ultimately meant higher levies on younger taxpayers who could afford it less. "When you take 1000 people away, some people's taxes are going to go up," he said.
But Blevins admitted he had claimed the 65/5exemption himself even as he warned of its evils, explaining he was tired of being the only voice crying in the wilderness. Also, the Feb. 24 version of his anti-exemption speech was so mired with information about Blevins' other public obsession, Georgia Power's add-on charges for its Plant Vogtle project--"You're being robbed," said Blevins--it was unclear how much impact it could have had on either Rep. Moore or the general attendance.
Nobody else with a word to say against 65/5 said it, with the lukewarm exception of the young state representative himself, who said, "With 65/5, we're picking winners and losers." The losers, he said, are young people like himself.
Moore made it clear, though, that the whole idea of the meeting was to determine what the referendum ballot should look like, and he seemed willing to let the school board's idea about an exemption cap, and in fact the school board, lapse back into obscurity. If citizens were worried about irresponsible school board spending, he told them, that's something they should take to school board meetings, and watching video footage of those meetings he hadn't seen them there. "That's not necessary the state representative's job," he said.
A surprise bonus issue at the town hall meeting was the fate of Dade's recent long-hashed-out but universally agreed-upon resolution to restructure the governing authority of the county water company, or so called water board. Rep. Moore introduced the idea of the water board reshuffle being, like 65/5, a matter for public referendum. The meeting was well-attended by county commissioners, and they spoke up registering their understanding otherwise.
The last reshuffle, in 2010, had been accomplished without a referendum, they pointed out; and this current shakeup had been worked out by mutual agreement of the water board, Dade County and Trenton city governments. Citizen Rex Harrison made the additional point that putting the matter to referendum would delay the water board fix until 2020, the next general election.
Rep. Moore said he'd check the rules and make a statement on it in "this week's paper," later elucidating that he'd get an article into The Dade County Sentinel, ironically the only local news outlet not represented at the town hall meeting.
Dade District 1 Commissioner Lamar Lowery stood up to opine about 65/5, reminding all that he'd made the motion to pass it during his earlier stint on the county commission, and reminding citizens that granting elders a tax exemption was only a short-term hit to revenues since: "They're not going to live forever." Younger people will buy those empty mansions and pay the school tax, said Lowery.
District 2's Phillip Hartline tossed in a quick mention of passing Sunday alcohol sales.
One citizen spoke about "constitutional carry" laws and wanted to know about the young representative's interaction with the two major Atlanta gun lobbies. And a few other citizens took advantage of Moore's Dade presence to sound off about their concerns or make themselves heard in general.
The Dade County Board of Education meets tonight at 5 p.m. Nothing related to 65/5 shows up on the meeting's agenda.