About the same time five Columbus residents were expressing concern to Columbus Council about a proposed referendum to thaw the property tax assessment freeze, the state House of Representatives was approving putting it on the November ballot.
The House passed the measure unanimously as part of a package of more than 20 other local legislative requests from around the state. It still must be passed by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal to become law. It would then be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.
If approved by voters, the proposal to “thaw” the property tax assessment freeze would keep the freeze in place on all existing homestead properties that are currently under the freeze for as long as the current owner owns it. Once a property is sold or changes hands by someone’s death, it would come out from under the freeze and be placed in a more common fair market value tax system. All homestead properties bought after Jan. 1, 2017, would be under the latter system.
The tax freeze, created in 1983 by referendum, freezes a homestead’s taxable assessment at the time of the sale, and keeps it there until the property changes hands. Then it is reassessed and frozen again at the new level.
I’m glad the process is moving along so that the citizens can vote on this important issue in November.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson
All five Columbus representatives, Democrats Calvin Smyre, Carolyn Hugley and Debbie Buckner as well as Republicans Richard Smith and John Pezold, voted in favor of the bill, which unanimously passed the House. It was lumped into a group of 22 uncontested local resolutions.
Smith once had some concerns about the legality of the way the ballot question was worded based on an opinion of a deputy legislative counsel. City lawyers huddled in Atlanta with the legislative counsel and produced a reworded ballot question, authored by the counsel, which passed muster with Smith.
“I had some concerns about the constitutionally of that particular legislation when that piece was requested,” Smith said. “I will say now, what I said then, if we are going to do this, we are going to do it right.”
Smith said he has been assured by General Assembly counsel that the current language is constitutional. Smith also said he wanted Columbus Council to vote on the new language, which it did two weeks ago.
“I insisted on the council vote, and I insisted on it being constitution,” Smith said. “I have no justification to oppose it regardless of how I might feel personally about it.”
Sen. Josh McKoon said he was surprised to see the bill moving forward since there had not been a delegation meeting in two weeks.
“The last communication I got was they had not resolved the differences between the legislative counsel’s version and the city’s version,” McKoon said.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, chairman of the Columbus delegation, said he was instructed by local lawmakers to work with general counsel to get the language approved.
“We were up against the clock and once we worked out the differences and council passed the resolution, the members wanted us to introduce it,” Smyre said.
A delegation meeting will be called before it hits the senate floor, Smyre said.
Sen. Ed Harbison, Columbus-D, said he has heard from constituents on both sides of the issue.
“I do not want to say if I am going to vote for or against it, but the bottom line is I’m likely to vote on what Columbus Council recommended 9-1,” Harbison said.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who has made thawing the tax freeze part of her agenda since she was first elected in 2008, said, “I’m glad the process is moving along so that the citizens can vote on this important issue in November.”
At Columbus Council Tuesday morning, about 100 miles away from the House vote, five people were appearing on the Public Agenda to voice concerns about the constitutionality of the referendum, the legality of the process with which it was sent to Atlanta and other aspects.
Michael Collins called putting the freeze question on the ballot “a severe and harsh slap in the face of the Columbus voters.”
“Council needs to prove that they will protect us by reconsidering this proposal,” Collins said.
Bert Coker said the proposed two-tiered tax system would be unconstitutional.
“Once you’ve got two classes of people under, a class of people who are under the freeze and a class of people who are not under the freeze, that’s illegal,” Coker said.
Tomlinson said discussions of the constitutionality of the measure can be part of the public debate as Election Day approaches.
“The citizens who appeared at council today were largely confused about the legislative process and I think that confusion was resolved,” Tomlinson said. “There is much discussion to be had over the next eight months about our tax system for going forward. Whether the citizens should have a voice in the issue at the ballot box should not be questioned in my mind. Of course, this issue should be on ballot.”
Reporter Chuck Williams contributed to this report.