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OUR VIEW: Looking for middle ground on property tax

The next week figures to be an important one in the ongoing debate over a school tax exemption for senior citizens.

The Tax Relief for Troup County Property Owners group has made its voice heard for months, via school board work sessions, social media and letters to the editor in this newspaper. The group has asked for the school system to completely eliminate property taxes for citizens 62 and older, a move that would reportedly cost the school system $5.3 million in fiscal year 2021. That number would balloon to almost $6 million per year by fiscal year 2029, according to figures released by the Troup County School System at a December town hall meeting.

We can’t remember our community being this divided on an issue in a long time.

In short, the argument from senior citizens is that they’ve paid these taxes their entire lives and that they’ve paid their fair share. The school system portion of property taxes is 62.5 percent of the total amount, which is obviously a very large percentage, so any exemption would be significant.

The argument against the exemption is that generations of senior citizens have paid those taxes, funding the way for students to get through school. In fact, the senior citizens arguing for this tax relief likely benefitted from millions of dollars paid by Troup County taxpayers while they were in school, assuming they attended Troup County schools. There’s also the argument that people without students in school — such as young adults or people with homeschool or private school students — shouldn’t have to pay the tax if the argument is that senior citizens don’t have students in the school system.

From our perspective, it’s been clear from the beginning that the school board wants to help.  Instead of throwing up their hands and blatantly ignoring the issue, board members have had meetings with the property tax relief group, and they also scheduled a town hall centered around this issue.

There have been several senior citizens who have spoken up at school board meetings, describing financial hardship that would require them to pay for their medicine or to pay their property taxes. Those stories are heartbreaking. No one wants anyone to be in that situation, and the school board has come across as sympathetic to that reality.

We’re not sure there are a large number of senior citizens in that position in our county, but there certainly are some, and their stories are difficult to hear.

The board has promised repeatedly to produce and pass a referendum in time for it to make it to the state legislature, so announcing their intentions next week makes a lot of sense. Assuming the board does pass a referendum and the legislature votes it through — and that seems extremely likely on such a local issue — it would then be placed on the ballot for the people of Troup County to vote on. The big question mark is what the referendum will actually say, a topic we’ll report on as that language becomes clear.

Most of the core members of the tax relief group have spent time studying every TCSS financial document they can get their hands on and have tried to keep the discussion to facts only, an approach we applaud. Unfortunately, many others on the tax relief Facebook group have strayed from the initial approach, leading to name calling and acting as if people with the opposite opinion have half a brain. We’re sure there’s been some of that on both sides, but it’s hard not to notice on the public Facebook page representing the incorporated tax relief group.

At the end of the day, we’re all neighbors and need to respect each other’s opinions as we work through difficult issues, including this one. We cannot allow difficult topics like this one to divide our community.

The tax relief group believes that there is enough “wasteful spending” in the school system to cut $5 million a year without eliminating any jobs or affecting students in any way. The school system has a $118 million budget, and it’s been under the spotlight over the last six months.

We think that’s great. Any time citizens are involved and engaged, everyone benefits, and we’re sure TCSS has probably learned some things having such a strong outside perspective on its spending. However, we admit that it’s frustrating that there’s so much focus on TCSS’ budget, but then so few people at the actual meetings — a soap box that goes well beyond this one issue.

Don’t get us wrong — since senior citizens first brought this idea forward in September, the public comment portion of the Monday work sessions has been packed. However, as soon as the public comment period is over, most of the room clears out before the actual work session really starts. And almost no one shows up for the board meetings on Thursdays, since public comments on this issue have been limited to only work sessions. So, for all the talk about how the money is being spent, very few people are actually present to hear out the argument for expenses.

As for the wasteful spending, we’re sure there are some areas where TCSS can tighten its belt. We think it’s pretty easy to make the argument that every school system or branch of government in the world has at least a little unintentional wasteful spending.

With that said, we’re not sure how anyone can confidently say that TCSS can cut $5 million per year without some other adjustment, whether that be cutting employment positions, raising the millage rate so that everyone under 62 pays more taxes, or reducing resources available for students. The core members of the tax relief group have repeatedly said they do not want this decision to impact teachers or students, but we’re not sure that’s possible.

A large portion — 86.9 percent to be exact — of the TCSS budget goes toward payroll related costs, so it’s hard to see how any cut wouldn’t impact someone on the payroll or the children in the classrooms. 

This isn’t as simple as deciding between hardwood flooring and laminate flooring or choosing to eat at home or eat out. People’s lives will be affected by any sort of cut.

It sounds simple to say ‘well, just run the school system off $113 million,’ but that’s oversimplifying it to a point that isn’t realistic. To their credit, the core members of the tax relief group have spent many hours looking at the budget and trying to find areas to cut, but we have not heard any plan outlined that would definitively handle the full tax exemption without causing other disruptions in the school system.

As for the referendum, we believe both sides are going to have to compromise. A $5 million reduction in funding feels crippling for TCSS, especially with a brand-new superintendent, who has big goals of turning around the school system’s middling test scores. We’re sure in a perfect world the school system would rather keep all of that funding. 

We think the best solution is for the school system to determine an average annual income where it can offer seniors citizens over 62 a full exemption from property taxes. Whatever that number is, we don’t know, but there’s a dollar amount that makes sense and wouldn’t result in such a drastic reduction in funding for the school system.

It’s important to remember that once an exemption is passed, it’ll be nearly impossible to bring one back, so the school system would have to operate without that funding for eternity.

Secondly, it’s important that the board does what it’s already committed to doing, although we don’t feel that’s in question at all at this point. That’s to say the board should pass the referendum and give Troup County voters a chance to have their say at the ballot box.

That’s the ultimate compromise — each side getting a little of what they want and also giving some.