The value of property exempt from Hall County school taxes has increased 259 percent in the past decade while the overall value of property in the tax digest prepared for the school system has increased by only 11 percent in the same time.
Nath Morris, chairman of the Hall County Board of Education, said the combination of the increasing exemptions and the plummet in property values during the recession create funding problems for the school district.
Full school tax exemptions are granted on property belonging to residents age 70 or older. The assessed value of exempted property has grown to $604.2 million in 2016 from $168.3 million in 2006.
Without the full exemptions, Hall County schools would be collecting $11.4 million more in property taxes.
Without partial tax exemptions some are eligible for at age 62, Hall schools would be collecting another $1.1 million in tax revenue. The assessed value of those exempted properties is $58.9 million.
Steve Watson, Hall County property assessor, said 15.3 percent of the taxable value in the county is exempt from the school tax. That includes 7,597 taxpayers.
The portion of the county population 65 and older increased 36 percent from 2010 to 2015, from 20,010 to 27,256, according to census numbers. The overall population for the same period increased 7.7 percent, 179,684 to 193,535.
Each time a tax exemption is created, for schools or other purposes, it shifts taxes to other property owners who do not have an exemption, Watson said.
Watson said special local legislation must be passed in the state legislature and then be approved by a local referendum to create or change the tax exemptions.
Older residents, though, say they aren’t burdening the school system with children and therefore the tax exemption is fair.
“There is an expectation of a fair tax rate and belief that seniors should not be paying for services we no longer need or use,” said Phyllis Mercer, a resident at Village at Deaton Creek. “I have heard many state that they believe the exemption is fair and even suggest that the break should be at 65 years of age rather than 70.”
Doug Geganto, who turned 70 in January and is a resident of Cresswind subdivision in Gainesville, said “every other county around us has a lower age for the tax exemption.”
Local voters created the exemption in 2001 and have voted twice, in 2004 and 2008, to lower the age limit, first to 72 and now to 70.
The county spends about $750 less per student than the state average, Superintendent Will Schofield said during budget deliberations.
“Yet our millage rate is still up there,” Morris said. The rate is 18.8 mills; the state limit for schools is 20 mills.
Schofield also said the school district’s spending for the fiscal year 2017 is about the same as it was for 2010.
“It’s been very difficult for us to climb out” from the effects of the recession,” Morris said. “(Property tax) is the only way we are able to fund education.”
Geganto said his wife and he “weren’t pleased that you have to wait until 70” to get the full tax exemption. He added that he will not get the benefit of reduced taxes until payments due in 2017.
He and his wife moved to Hall nearly two years ago from Gwinnett County to be near the lake and part of an active adult community.
“We’re still being forced to pay for the burden of public schools, but we’re not getting any benefit of it,” he said. “We feel like they just take advantage of the seniors.”
Said Mercer, “My husband and I have the school tax exemption and feel that the school tax exemption break is appropriate since those getting the break are placing no demands on the school system.”
Tax exemptions are available for several other categories, and the total tax exemptions for the 2016 school tax digest is $1.1 billion. Morris said slightly more than 20 percent of the school tax digest is exempt from taxes.