Sunday, January 29, 2023

Legislation To Increase Oconee County Homestead Exemption Awaits Drafting In Legislative Counsel, County Chair Says

***Legislative Delegates Have Not Responded***

Although Oconee County’s three state legislators have been unwilling to confirm, the Board of Commissioner’s request for legislation to increase the county’s property tax homestead exemption is in the queue with the General Assembly’s Legislative Counsel, Board Chair John Daniell said on Friday.

County Attorney Daniel Haygood also said on Friday that he was aware that the request had been submitted to Legislative Counsel, but he had not yet heard from Counsel.

Haygood reviewed the existing local legislation leading up to the Board’s vote on Jan. 3 to pass a resolution asking the three legislators to change that legislation to increase the homestead exemption and to freeze property tax assessments when a homeowner reaches age 65.

Oconee County Board of Education Chair Kim Argo said the Board does not intend to pass a resolution in support of the legislative changes, which would reduce school tax as well as county tax revenue.

Both Argo and School Board Member Tim Burgess said, however, that they relayed support of the changes at a meeting they held on Dec. 15 with the three legislators.

“Once the draft is completed and approved it can be introduced,” Daniell said on Friday. “We have plenty of time and do not anticipate any issues.”

The General Assembly approved an increase in the homestead exemption in Clarke County last year, but it was not as requested by the Mayor and Commission. It took three votes to get the required two-thirds support needed to pass the legislation.

NOTE: At 4:33 p.m. on 1/30/2023, Cyndi West, legislative assistant to Sen. Bill Cowsert, wrote that "This particular legislation has not yet been introduced."

What Is Requested

The Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Jan. 3 to ask the legislators representing Oconee County in the General Assembly to introduce bills this year that would allow for a referendum in 2024 on changes in the local legislation.

Official Picture Wiedower

The commissioners want to increase the homestead exemption from its current $2,000 to $5,000 in 2025 and to $10,000 in 2035.

They also want to freeze a homeowners property assessments after the owner turns 65. Taxes in future years would not increase unless the county or the School Board increased the millage rate.

Persons who turn 75 also would get an additional $10,000 homestead exemption.

In the simplest calculation, had the proposed exemption been in effect this past year, the owner of a $400,000 home would have received a homestead exemption reduction in county and school property taxes of $107.27 rather than $42.91, or a additional saving of $64.36.

The legislation making this possible could be introduced in either the Georgia House or the Georgia Senate. (See addendum below.) The first step is to ask the Legislative Counsel for the General Assembly to draft the legislation.

“We’ve met with the delegation,” Daniell said at the Jan. 3 meeting. “Talked with everybody. They’re on board with it. I believe they’ve already talked to Legislative Council to let them know it was coming.”

Consistent with Daniell’s report that the legislation had not been produced by Legislative Counsel, as of Friday, no such legislation had been introduced, according to the General Assembly legislative tracker.

Emails To Legislators

I emailed Rep. Marcus Wiedower and Rep. Houston Gaines on Jan. 17 and asked them when they expected to introduce the legislation.

Official Picture Gaines

When neither answered, I sent them another email on Jan 20, asking them when they planned to introduce the legislation.

When neither answered, I sent them individually, as well as Sen. Bill Cowsert, an email on Friday (Jan. 27), asking for an update on their plans.

Again, they did not answer.

Wiedower represents six of the county’s eight precincts (including mine) as well as parts of Clarke County in the 121st House District.

Gaines represents Marswood Hall and Bogart precincts in Oconee County as well as parts of Clarke, Barrow, and Jackson counties in the 120th House District.

Cowsert’s 46th Senate District includes all of Oconee County and parts of Clarke, Walton, Barrow, and Gwinnett counties.

Since I had not heard from Wiedower and Gaines, I decided to ask Commission Chair Daniell and County Attorney Haygood what they knew, and each responded shortly after I sent the request on Friday morning (Jan. 27).

(Addendum: I received the following message from Cyndi West, Legislative Assistant to Sen. Bill Cowsert, at 4:33 p.m. on 1/30/2023. "Thank you for reaching out to our office. Senator Cowsert wanted me to let you know that local legislation starts in the House. This particular legislation has not yet been introduced.")

Board Of Education

Daniell and Haygood briefed the other four commissioners on the county’s current homestead exemption at the Commission goal setting meeting on Oct. 27.

Official Picture Cowsert

Daniell said at that time that members of the Board of Education has been briefed on the discussions as well.

Members of the Board of Education met with Cowsert, Gaines, and Wiedower in an unpublicized meeting at the School offices on Dec. 15.

When I learned of that meeting through an open records request I filed to learn about communication between the Oconee County Schools and School Board and the legislators, I asked Board Member Tim Burgess if changes to the homestead exemptions had been discussed.

Burgess is the legislative liaison for the Board of Education. I sent my him my email on Jan. 17.

Burgess’ Response

Burgess wrote me back several hours after I had written him, saying he had responded to a similar question from Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, and was forwarding to me his response to Prochaska.

“Our informational meeting with the Legislative delegation was arranged to hear about the various education related issues that might come up at this year’s General Assembly,” Burgess wrote. “During this discussion the concept of an expanded homestead exemption specifically favoring senior citizens was discussed.”

“This followed mine and Kim’s previous discussion in October with some members of the Oconee County Commission about the various concepts and forms that could/should be included in this expanded exemption,” the note from Burgess continued, referring to School Board Chair Argo.

“During this informational session with our Delegation it became clear that we were all on the same page and in agreement with the likely elements of this new exemption,” Burgess wrote. “These elements were consistent with one on one conversations previously had with other members of our Board and with which they were individually fully supportive.”

“Hopefully this clears up a misconception about our position on this expanded exemption,” he said.

“As this was not a formal meeting of our Board and no official action was taken, but rather simply an informational meeting with officials of the legislative branch, no minutes of this meeting were taken,” Burgess concluded.

I sent Burgess a follow-up message that same day and another the next day asking who attended that meeting on Dec. 15.

He did not answer either email.

Argo’s Response

I asked Board Chair Argo in an email on Jan. 19 who attended the Dec. 15 meeting and to confirm that the homestead exemptions were discussed.

Official Picture
Superintendent Jason Branch 
Parrish, Argo, Hammock, Ransom, Burgess (L-R)

She wrote back that same day, saying “Bill, Houston, and Marcus were all in attendance at the December breakfast at the OCS central office. One or two of our members and our school superintendent traditionally meet with our legislators either before session or at the capitol during the legislative session.”

“Because Tim and I are both retired, our schedules are more flexible during the day,” she continued. “Michael Ransom was able to greet the legislators before he had to leave because of other obligations.”

“Due to their work schedule, Amy Parrish and Ryan Hammock were unable to join us,” she wrote. “Tim Burgess and I were able to stay for the entire time. Senator Cowsert had to leave early, but he was there for the majority of the conversation.”

“The legislators shared their thoughts on probable upcoming legislation,” she wrote. “Homestead exemptions and property assessment changes proposed by the commissioners was discussed. Tim and I both shared our support and the support of the other BOE members of these proposed changes."

“The Oconee County School System and BOE appreciates the support of our legislators,” she continued. “We are thankful for their willingness to take time out of their busy schedules to meet with us and to discuss what is best for our students, teachers, staff, and our community.”

In a story on page A2 of the Jan. 19 edition of the Enterprise, Prochaska included the following paragraph about that meeting.

“Wiedower said that such a gathering had been done in previous years and that at this year’s meet-and-greet, no specific legislation was discussed in detail.”

Local Legislation And Homestead Exemptions

According to a document on the web site of the Association County Commissioners Georgia (ACCG), the Georgia Constitution spells out some basic requirements for local legislation, or legislation which affects a specified political subdivision of the state as opposed to affecting the state in general.

While local governments have broad powers under the Home Rule provision of the Constitution, certain types of matters must be dealt with via local legislation, and homestead exemption is one of those.

Ad valorem tax exemptions require an Act of the legislature passed with a two-thirds vote of the members of each chamber of the legislature and ratified in a statewide referendum, according to the ACCG document.

The Georgia House has 180 members, and the Georgia Senate has 56 members.

Local legislative delegations have their own rules for how local legislation can be requested, according to the ACCG document.

“(S)ome will only take action upon the adoption of a unanimous resolution by the county commission or school board,” according to the document. “Some have no such rules. It just depends on what the local delegation chooses to do.”

According to the ACCG document, state law requires that a notice of intent to file local legislation must be posted in the county legal organ. For Oconee County, that is the Enterprise.

No notice has appeared in the paper to date.

Gaines And Girtz

The General Assembly passed local legislation changing the Homestead Exemption for Athens-Clarke County on April 1 of last year.

Rep. Gaines took credit for that legislation in an interview he did with WGAU radio host Tim Bryant on Jan. 4 of this year.

“This past year,” he said, “we passed in Clarke County the Homestead Exemption increase to provide property tax relief in Clarke County.”

To better understand the situation in Oconee County, I asked Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz in an email on Jan. 24 for background on the creation of the local legislation.

Girtz Response

“We asked our area delegation for three years for a targeted exemption for low income residents (as Fulton already had),” Girtz wrote. “We already had the most generous broad homestead of any of our neighbors at $10,000 (vs 2k or 4K among most other in the region).”

Oconee County’s is $2,000.

“Houston was only interested in the low-income component if it was paired with a general exemption increase,” Girtz continued.

“Over the course of the ‘21 and ‘22 sessions, there was great diversity of thought among the 11 ACC electeds in what size of general increase made sense,” Girtz said.

“I was supportive of a rise to 12.5 or 15k, but what passed the General Assembly and was approved by voters was 25k,” he said.

The Clarke County School system was not involved in the discussion, Girtz said, and the approved change only applies to the calculation of property tax for the unified Athens-Clarke County government.

In the referendum, 85.7 percent of the voters voted Yes to increases the exemption.

Legislative Record

According to the General Assembly legislative tracker, Gaines and Wiedower introduced House Bill 797 dealing with the Clarke County homestead exemption early in the session last year. A footnote indicates it was referred to the Intragovernmental Coordination Committee on Jan. 13.

The Notice of Intention To Introduce Local Legislation was published in the Athens-Banner Herald, the legal organ for Athens-Clarke County, on Feb. 5, according to that notice on the web tracker.

The Intragovernmental Coordination Committee reported out the bill favorably on March 25, and it was voted on twice that day, both times failing to reach the required two-thirds majority. (The votes were 108 Yes, 56 Nay, and 101 Yes, 60 Nay.)

Spencer Frye, the only member of the House whose district is wholly in Clarke County and who is a Democrat, voted against the bill both of those times. Gaines, Wiedower, both Republicans, voted for the bill.

It was withdrawn from that Committee and resubmitted to the Intragovernmental Coordination Committee on March 28.

The Committee reported out a substitute bill on March 29, and that substitute passed the full House that same day.

In this case, 153 House Members, including Frye, voted in favor, and only 5 voted against.

The Senate passed House Bill 797 on April 1 with a vote of 40 to 1, and it was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 18.

Cowsert voted in favor of the bill.

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