Reactions vary at property tax assessment freeze sunset plan meeting

A handful of movers and shakers offered different reactions to Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s property tax assessment freeze sunset proposal at an information meeting for policy makers Wednesday.

After Tomlinson and Ben Blair, director of the Butler Center for Business Economic Research, presented her proposal, several offered questions, challenges and support.

The proposal, which would have to be approved by referendum, would allow anyone currently under the freeze to remain under it as long as they wish. But when their property changed hands, either by sale or by death, it would come out from under it. In exchange for giving up the freeze, Tomlinson’s proposal includes a 50 percent increase in the homestead exemption, from $13,500 to $20,000.

Former state senator Seth Harp, a longtime proponent of the freeze, questioned the legality of maintaining two tax systems until the freeze finally thaws, many years down the road.

“If you enact the scheme you’re talking about and maintain the other methodology, haven’t you immediately set up a conflicting taxing system that denies equal protection to one group or the other?” Harp asked.

“No,” Tomlinson said. “Before we wasted anybody’s precious time, we got some very solid legal advice that we’re very comfortable with.”

Harp, an attorney, also proposed that the sunset could put the city itself at risk. He offered a hypothetical situation in which the country falls into depression, and plummeting property values would decimate the city’s budget without the freeze to protect it.

“I think it would devastate families, if we had a depression, to tax them at rates that no longer represented their wealth value,” Tomlinson said. “It would be tough times if we had a depression, but I would bet on the city’s ability to withstand a depression more than I would bet on a family, being taxed on wealth they don’t have.”

Realtor Murray Calhoun offered admittedly “selfish” support for Tomlinson’s effort to remove the freeze, which he contends inhibits the sale of property.

“It inhibits growth,” Calhoun said, recalling a more vibrant real estate market before the freeze was enacted. “People were moving around. It’s exciting to get into a new neighborhood. But now, people are camped. It’s not good for the economy.”

For the proposal to sunset the tax freeze completely, the Muscogee County School Board would have to agree to sign on with Columbus Council because they are the county’s two taxing authorities.

School board member John Wells pointed to a chart projecting the long-range effect of the proposal, should it pass.

“There’s not going to be much change,” Wells said. “I’m looking here and 13 years later, and you’re not making much change.”

Tomlinson said some people might want the freeze just lifted, but that’s neither “politically palatable” nor fair to people who have planned their life around the tax break.

“Yes, the change is remarkably slow, but I think that speaks to the fairness of the proposal,” she said.

Becca Hardin, executive vice president of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, said the freeze hurts economic development and industrial recruitment.

“This would be a good tool for us to bring growth in,” Hardin said.