Local

Changes on freeze ballot remove homestead exemption hike

MIKE OWEN

mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

The wording of the proposed referendum to “thaw” Columbus’ property tax assessment freeze has been changed to address problems that state Rep. Richard Smith said rendered the referendum possibly unconstitutional, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said.

In doing so, the additional $6,500 homestead exemption that Tomlinson proposed for homeowners who are not under the freeze was removed from the referendum.

The irony is that the proposed increase in the homestead exemption arose from early opponents of the referendum. While simply sunsetting the freeze would bring tax benefits over time, they wanted tax breaks “front-loaded,” Tomlinson said.

“Ironically, then they said it was unconstitutional,” the mayor said.

Tomlinson said that, while the city could seek the increased homestead exemption in another referendum in another year, Columbus Council has the authority to provide relief in the form of a millage reduction.

She called the new ballot question “much more streamlined,” but still what the citizens need for a chance to vote on.

“We need the citizens of Columbus to be able to decide on their tax system,” Tomlinson said. “Not just a small group of people who happen to be in positions of authority.”

The original ballot question was about 175 words spread over three sections. The new version is only 76 words in one section.

It was the multiple sections, or questions, that Smith said caused a problem. He took the referendum to one of the House deputy general counsels, Richard Russkell, who said putting three different things sunsetting the freeze, creating a market-based system and creating a higher homestead exemption for new homebuyers violates the “single-subject rule,” which doesn’t allow different subjects to be part of a single ballot question.

Attorney Chuck Palmer, who practices government and regulatory law with the Atlanta firm of Troutman Sanders, was retained by the city in the early 2000s and successfully defended the freeze against a court challenge.

Asked about Russkell’s opinion about 10 days ago, Palmer said he “respectfully disagrees” and added that combining the different matters into one question would be legal.

But last week, Palmer, along with City Attorney Clifton Fay and Deputy City Attorney Lucy Sheftall, met with House General Counsel Wayne Allen in Atlanta to address concerns about the ballot question. The result was the streamlined version that has been submitted to the local legislative delegation.

In order for the referendum to get on the November ballot, the delegation must present it to the General Assembly, which must then approve it.

Contacted Wednesday, Smith said he has not had a chance to read the new wording or to hear from the House general counsel about it or to talk to others in the delegation about it.

But, asked if he would support putting it on the ballot, should it pass muster with the general counsel, Smith said, “What choice would I have? Like I said before, I said if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.”

If the referendum were to get on the ballot and then be approved by voters, it would not eliminate the property tax assessment freeze, but would “sunset” it.

All homestead property currently under the freeze would remain under the freeze until it changes hands, whether by sale or probate. Then it would be reassessed and placed in a new fair market system, similar to those employed by the vast majority of municipalities. All homestead property purchased after Jan. 1, 2017, would also come in under the new fair market system.

Eventually, all of the property currently under the freeze would change hands and the freeze would go away.

Read the change

Original ballot text:

“Shall the Act be approved which: (1) Repeals the local constitutional amendment which provides for the assessment of certain homestead property of Muscogee County (now the consolidated government of Columbus, Georgia) for ad valorem tax purposes for schools and consolidated city-county government purposes; (2) Provides an equivalent, base year assessed value homestead exemption from ad valorem taxes for consolidated government purposes and Muscogee County school district ad valorem taxes for educational purposes for residents who in 2016 received, on that same homestead property, the assessment under the local constitutional amendment described in item 1 above or who purchased homestead property after January 1, 2016 and on or before January 1, 2017, and timely filed an application for a homestead exemption on or before April 1, 2017; and (3) Provides $6,500.00 homestead exemptions in addition to the current $13,500.00 exemptions from both consolidated government and school district taxes so that persons who do not qualify for the exemption under item 2 above will receive a combined $20,000.00 exemption from consolidated government taxes and school district taxes?”

New ballot text:

“Shall the Act be approved so as to repeal the current local constitutional amendment which provides for assessment of homestead property within the geographical limits of the consolidated government of Columbus, Georgia, and to replace it with an equivalent base year assessed value homestead exemption for residents presently receiving the current assessment or who purchase their homestead property on or before January 1, 2017, and who timely file for homestead exemption by April 1, 2017?”

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