Hall County school officials continue to caution residents about the strains of funding public education as the number of local tax exemptions continues to grow.
Residents have decried attempts to eliminate tax exemptions, with many calling school board members, commenting on social media and writing letters to the editor of The Times following a July 6 article on the subject. School officials said this week that a “healthy dialogue” is needed.
“It comes down to how we fund schools,” Superintendent Will Schofield said in a video released to the public Monday, July 23, with local funding — including how exemptions are created, changed and potentially eliminated — a particular source of concern.
But it’s about “all exemptions,” not just for seniors, school board chairman Nath Morris said.
“I’ve tried to make it clear that this is an all-exemption thing,” he told The Times, adding that it’s not about singling out seniors.
The school district receives funding from three sources: a federal share that doesn’t even cover mandates, according to Schofield; a state share that accounts for about 45-50 percent of the school district’s budget and is fully funded for the first time this year; and local funding.
The local funding portion consists of property taxes; the Title Ad Valorem Tax on motor vehicles, which generates about $6 million annually for Hall schools, and special purpose local options sales tax revenue, which generates between $1.6 and $2 million a month, on average, but can only be spent on capital expenses.
When Schofield became superintendent 13 years ago, the county had about $450 million worth of property that was exempt from school taxes, or about 10 percent of the total tax digest.
Today, that figure has risen to about $1.3 billion, or almost 21 percent of the tax digest.
“We need to be asking ourselves the question: ‘How are we going to be able to pay for public education in the future if these exemptions continue to grow at this pace?’” Schofield said. “We love our senior citizens. We love the support we get in this community. But as your school superintendent, I will continue to ask the questions …”
There are many exemptions available, such as for disabled veterans, surviving spouses of firefighters, for agriculture and conservation, and for public utilities.
“We’ve got to look at all the exemptions and how we’re going to fund education,” Morris said, adding that Hall County is out of line with other Georgia counties in terms of the number of exemptions it offers.
Senior citizens, however, account for 61 percent of all exemptions in Hall. Seniors can receive a full exemption beginning at age 70.
The school board, however, has “no authority to determine what is exempt from school taxes and what is not,” Schofield said. It is a matter for state legislators.
State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said the issue of exemptions from school taxes is something that comes up from time to time in the General Assembly.
“It has come up in the past,” he said, referring to local legislation presented from other communities. “I would see that around the state.”
Exemptions vary from city to city, county to county and school district to school district, Hawkins said, and some are based on “means-testing,” or the ability to pay.
But it has never before been a major priority to address in Hall County, Hawkins said. And he isn’t sure what can or might be done going forward.
“Once you give, it’s hard to take away,” Hawkins said, adding that many seniors live on fixed incomes.
But Hall County’s retirement-age population is swelling, attracted by a robust health care industry, assisted-living communities and lakeside activities.
“We have people that move here because of that exemption,” Hawkins said.
U.S. Census estimates for 2017 show a graying of Hall County, with the number of residents 65 and older growing to 14.7 percent of the population from 9.27 percent in 2000.
“I think the conversation is worth having,” but only with regard to future tax exemptions, Hawkins said. “Maybe enough is enough.”
Mark Pettitt, the Republican nominee for the Post 2 seat on the Hall County Board of Education, said he understands the frustration seniors have expressed because they have paid their “fair share” of school taxes for many years while other counties implement exemptions for seniors at a younger age.
“Hall County has been designated one of the best places to retire in America because of our great quality of life, access to world-class health care and our friendly tax environment,” Pettitt wrote in a press release sent earlier this month. “We are blessed to live in such a wonderful community, a community that our seniors have worked their entire lives to build. When I ran for school board in 2014, I committed to work toward lower taxes and a more efficient education system. That commitment has not changed.”
There has been some suggestion that seniors who can afford to pay the taxes should do so.
William Wallace, the Democratic nominee for Post 2 on the school board, said that as a taxpayer himself with a daughter in the public school system, he understands the issue is delicate for seniors and others.
He also said it’s imperative “to make sure (schools are) adequately funded.”
“I’m unsure exactly how this issue arose … but seniors have every right to have their antenna go up when they hear reports” of exemptions being modified or eliminated, Wallace said. “I pledge to do what I can do as a school board member to stand up for (seniors).”