Mayor Teresa Tomlinson faced a mixed bag of questions and observations at the first of four summer public forums concerning her plan to sunset the city’s property tax assessment freeze.
A crowd of 35-40 gathered in Canaan Baptist Church off Forrest Road to hear Tomlinson outline her plan, which would allow those currently under the freeze to stay under it indefinitely and lift the freeze only on properties as they transferred ownership.
Some voiced support and some voiced at least concerns if not opposition, and in some cases Tomlinson was able to clear up misconceptions residents had about the proposal.
Tomlinson said one challenge the freeze presents for Columbus is it is in effect a “welcome stranger” tax, placing an inequitable property tax burden on people moving to the city. She said that was clearly evident when many people moving to the area when the Armor School moved from Fort Knox moved to Fort Mitchell and Harris County because of relatively low taxes.
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One resident, Nate Sanderson, president of the local NAACP, said there are other ways to make those who live elsewhere but enjoy the city’s amenities to support them. Tomlinson said that beyond sales taxes and higher user fees for non-residents, there is little the city can do legally.
The most effective way would be to institute a city income tax on those who live elsewhere but work and play in Columbus. But Georgia law bans local income taxes, and that’s not about to change, she said.
One resident who did not give her name said she would fight the mayor’s proposal because the freeze protects the elderly and those on fixed incomes.
“Good luck passing it, because I’m going to work against it,” the woman said.
Tomlinson responded that the freeze only helps those groups as long as they stay in their house. But if one spouse is widowed or when children grow up and move, the homeowners might want to downsize. At that point, they become like a newcomer, bearing an inequitable share of the tax burden.
Crystal Macon said she is a relative newcomer and she doesn’t enjoy paying much more in property taxes than her neighbors who have been there longer.
“It’s frustrating to learn that there people in my neighborhood paying this much tax,” she said, holding her hand near the floor, then raising it over her head and adding, “while I pay this much.”
Several people said they worried about their children who would not benefit from the freeze if it were grandfathered out.
Tomlinson said under her system, newcomers, first-time buyers and anyone who buys an owner-occupied home under her proposal would see their homestead exemption rise from $13,500 to $20,000. With property changing hands an average of every seven years in Columbus, she said, average homeowners would benefit much more from the higher homestead exemption than the freeze.
Tomlinson is planning three more such public forums this summer. The next will be Tuesday, June 30 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Springer Opera House
For Tomlinson’s plan to become law, Columbus Council would have to ask the local legislative delegation to grant permission to put it on the ballot, then a majority of voters would have to approve it. Tomlinson wants to put the measure on the November General Election ballot in 2016.