Decatur School Board defends ‘sunset’ clause in homestead exemption
The Decatur School Board is catching some heat for supporting a “sunset” of the expansion of a homestead tax exemption for seniors, but board members say it’s necessary.
School Board members on Tuesday, Feb. 9, unanimously approved a resolution that added a five-year sunset clause to legislation that calls for a referendum on expanding the homestead tax to seniors age 65 and older. The School Board’s approval followed public comments on the matter.
The decision to seek the expanded homestead tax came as the School Board asked voters to approve a $75 million general obligation bond for school construction, which voters did in November by an overwhelming margin. The bond will result in a tax increase to pay off the debt. The legislation was proposed as an attempt to alleviate concerns about the tax burden on seniors.
While the board’s initial resolution did not contain a sunset provision, it was added after an inquiry by state Sen. Elena Parent.
Board members have cautioned that adding the sunset clause isn’t a “bait and switch”, but is a necessary step to ensure the bill is approved in the current legislative session.
“We don’t want to create a roadblock to this legislation,” School Board chairperson Annie Caiola told members of the public attending the meeting.
School Board member Lewis Jones said City Schools of Decatur also doesn’t want to create a situation where it is limiting future revenue. He said there is a bill in the Legislature being considered that would lower the millage rate that county school systems can charge, though that bill is clearly targeting DeKalb County Schools. Jones questioned whether such legislation could affect all school systems.
“Currently we can do up to 25 [mills]. There’s a proposal to limit it to 20,” Jones said. “If we come in and grant exemption and expect it to cost half a mill and at the same time we’ve lost our millage authority, then we’ve created a box and it’s in order to avoid those types of problems.”
The School Board also released a lengthy press release defending its support of the 5-year-sunset provision. The statement says the projected cost of expanding the homestead exemption isn’t the issue.
“The cost of this exemption is projected to be .65 of a mil or approximately $1,000,000,” the press release says. “We think the benefits exceed the projected cost. But, because the actual cost could be higher than the projected cost, a ‘sunset’ would allow adjustments to be made at the end of a five-year period. Data collected during this period will help determine if the exemption should be limited by income or assessed value to be sustainable. We think this is a reasonable and responsible solution to providing immediate relief to seniors while protecting the school system and the taxpayers who fund it.”
According to the School Board’s statement, the sunset provision …
1. Allows us time to assess what the actual cost of the exemption will be.
2. Honors our commitments to both seniors and taxpayers.
3. Allows us to adjust for changing circumstances.
To read the full statement, click here.
School Board member Garrett Goebel told the audience he understood their concerns, but the board runs the risk of not having the legislation approved at all if there’s no consensus about whether a the sunset should be included in the bill.
“I do hear you about trying to find some compromise,” Goebel said. “I also hear very loudly that if there’s enough indecision they’ll just pull it. If we seem to be divided, it’ll be pulled. That’s my read.”