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Local officials relieved at renewal of state homeowner tax grant
Without federal stimulus, higher tax bills likely would have gone out
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Local officials were happy to avoid sending out an additional tax bill this year after Gov. Sonny Perdue signed legislation Tuesday to provide money for the Homeowner Tax Relief Grant.

Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Oliver, who has been a vocal advocate of keeping the grant, was especially pleased.

"I’m very excited," Oliver said. "It’s good for the community."

The $787 billion federal stimulus package — which many Georgia Republicans have criticized as bloated — prevented the state from making even steeper cuts and helped fund the tax relief grants, according to The Associated Press.

Oliver said losing the money, about $200 to $300 per household, would have been detrimental for both Hall residents and government.

"ACCG (Association County Commissioners of Georgia) said that we would have to send out another tax bill. Just for us to send out another tax bill is $40,000," Oliver said of the printing and mailing costs the county would incur.

Oliver said tough economic times are stressful enough already without the threat of an additional tax bill.

"I’m just sorry that the communication was such that he threatened not to do it and put everybody in a very uncomfortable position," Oliver said.

Local governments will receive the grant this fiscal year but it is unlikely they will in years to come. According to The Associated Press, future grants will be tied to the state of the economy, which is unlikely to improve significantly in the next year.

"I understand next year they’re going to take it out of the budget so we’ll have to redo our budgets for that, but we can handle it. We’ll take care of it," Oliver said.

Hall school Superintendent Will Schofield is less optimistic. He feels the grant is just a temporary fix to the system’s financial problems.

"In the short term, I think it’s good news for Hall County taxpayers," Schofield said, "However in the long run I think there’s still some major questions to be answered and that is it doesn’t appear that will be funded next year and that just leaves another $3.2 million gaping hole in next year’s budget."

For the past few months, the school system has been operating with only the bare essentials in case the grant did not come through.

"We’re currently running at a pace to be between $2 and $2.5 million under budget with expenditures this year," Schofield said.

But those savings may not be enough to offset additional state funding losses the school is expecting. Austerity cuts and a reduction in the equalization grant will leave Hall schools with less money than before.

"We’re planning conservatively that we’re going to need to find a way to operate next year with $10 million less state support than we had this year. That’s a dramatic figure," Schofield said. "We’re going to continue to plan for the worst, hope for the best but we’re going to have to do more with less next year."

Doing more with less could mean layoffs.

"Our long-term plan is to look at our fundamental structure and figure out how to operate next year on a much lower cost unit basis than we are this year and that of course involves people and personnel," he said.

The Gainesville school system is not as reliant on the grant money as the Hall system.

"Roughly 70 percent of our tax base is from business and industry. But at this time, every little bit helps," Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said.

The Gainesville system only receives Homeowners Tax Relief Grant funds from people who own their homes in the system; people who rent property or own businesses in the area are not eligible for the homestead exemption.

"It is roughly $135,000, it’s not that much," Dyer said. "We’re fortunate because it’s not as large amount of money as some systems that are more residential."

Perdue originally wanted to end the $428 million grant this year as a way to chip away at the state’s now $2.6 billion budget deficit. He has called the grant an inefficient way to keep property taxes low, as it was originally intended to do.

Local officials complained that they had included the tax relief in property bills that had already been mailed out. They warned that without the state money they would have to send out supplemental tax bills to homeowners who are already stretched thin financially.