By Sara Amis, contributor
Decatur, GA — The Senior Homestead Tax Committee on Sept. 8 presented its recommendations for how tax relief for seniors can be continued after the current exemption sunsets in 2021.
“I believe we finally came to reasonable recommendations that try to strike a balance between the needs of CSD and the needs of our greater community,” committee member Paula Collins told the School Board during its Sept. 8 regular meeting.
The current exemption was intended to cost City Schools of Decatur $1.2 million in reduced revenue and to help keep seniors in place in the community while hopefully reducing additional student enrollment. According to a study conducted by Georgia State University, the exemption did not achieve either of those goals. Additionally, costs to CSD’s budget were much greater than anticipated, totaling $3.2 million initially, with increases up to an estimated $5.2 million in 2020.
Those reductions in expected revenues led to the CSD board having to cut some services, pull $1.7 million from the school system’s reserve, and increase the millage rate from 18.66 to 20.25 to cover the gap.
The CSD board formed the Senior Homestead Tax Committee and charged them with coming up with a recommendation for a new exemption that would preserve as much tax relief for seniors as possible while keeping additional budget costs to the $1.2 million amount originally planned. The board also asked for recommendations on how to engage public input and for specific numbers calculated using the Tableau tool provided by Georgia State.
The committee recommended two separate exemptions. One will be for seniors 65-69, based on federal adjusted median income, with an exemption value adjusted to reflect home values. The total amount of that exemption will be capped at $1.1 million. Seniors 70+ will also receive an income-based exemption while the rest of the budgeted amount, no more than $3.2 million, will be distributed to all seniors who are 70+ regardless of income.
“For all practical purposes, you are pushing the current exemption out from age 65 to age 70+, and maintaining a smaller exemption for age 65 to 69 that is very much focused on needs,” said committee member Hans Utz, who also is a Decaturish contributor.
The committee also recommended that CSD hire someone to analyze the data more extensively before committing to a new exemption.
“There is a substantial amount of analysis that needs to be done behind this, that the committee themselves were not equipped to do,” said Utz.
Heather Tell asked how the board would be able to use the Tableau tool provided by Georgia State to evaluate the recommended exemptions because other data will not be obtainable in the time frame available.
“We have a pretty fixed timeline to get recommendations that we can put forth in the legislative language that we need, to be already communicating with our legislators who will be in session at the start of the year. We need their support to pass this, so we need something pretty concrete,” said Tell.
Utz said that the Tableau tool did not have the flexibility required to answer the necessary questions, including how many seniors would be impacted or what the total impact was going to be.
“That doesn’t mean we’re not in a position to figure the math out. It does mean hiring either a consultant or support who can take a look at how many people are going to be in each of these buckets based on what these parameters are,” said Utz.
Board chair Lewis Jones stated that there is not enough time to do another RFP, but there might be enough time to go back to the group at Georgia State for the necessary analysis and numbers.
“We need something, otherwise this exemption is going to sunset,” said Jones.
Utz acknowledged the urgency but also cautioned against a repeat of the original miscalculation.
“Putting something forward that doesn’t work mathematically just propagates the problem another five years down the road,” said Utz.
“I think we all agree that we need to know how much this is going to cost,” said Tell.
Utz indicated that the data from Georgia State lined up with the committee’s analysis and that additional information was available from the tax digest. He estimated that the exact numbers to include in draft legislation could be obtained from a data consultant in about two weeks.
The CSD Board plans to have a work session with the Senior Tax Exemption Committee to discuss the next steps, and to ask Georgia State to do the necessary analysis. Once the proposal has exact numbers, they will present it to the public so people can see how it will affect them personally.
“I think it’s a good proposal and a good direction,” said Jones.
In other business, CSD set a deadline of September 18 for an announcement of how the school year will be conducted going forward. All students are taking classes at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Superintendent Dr. David Dude outlined the sources of information being used to support a decision, including reported numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in DeKalb County, Georgia Tech’s risk assessment tool for group activities, and surveys sent out to teachers, parents, and students.
Physical preparations for in-person schooling include the installation of air ionization systems in all of the school buildings. Decatur High School’s system is the last to be installed.
“I will tell you both from looking at data on the spread of the virus, and the data from perceptions, it’s likely that we will be staying virtual longer. But one of the things that I’m encouraged by is that the rates are dropping,” said Dude. He described hybrid schooling as potentially “the worst of both worlds” and is seeking a way to transition without losing instruction time. Possibilities include learning pods and delaying most in-person activities until the school buildings can hopefully be fully opened in January.
Public comment focused on questions about the transition to in-person school and extracurricular activities. Sakari Morvey asked how the school would conduct temperature checks for students who don’t have thermometers or who forget. She also wanted to know how reassignment to a different teacher would be handled for students who opted to continue virtual schooling. Matt Carlton advocated for cross-country running to be brought back.
A proposal system for in-person activities will be put into place for staff to present plans for safely re-starting some programs or events.
Dude said that when it comes to the point of deciding whether to keep their child in virtual schooling if the system is going hybrid or fully in-person, parents need to know what that looks like. Logistics for some specialized situations still need to be worked out.
“At this point, we still don’t know all of the details and that’s why we haven’t shared them,” said Dude.
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