Oconee County commissioners are asking the county’s state legislative delegation to help it increase the homestead exemption as a way to decrease homeowner property taxes and freeze property tax assessments for persons once they turn 65 years of age.
The commissioners passed a resolution at their meeting on Tuesday calling on the legislators to introduce bills in the General Assembly this year that would allow for a referendum in 2024 on the homestead exemption and the freezing of assessments.
The changes in the property taxes would reduce county and school revenue, and Board of Education Chair Kim Argo said the School Board does not intend to pass a resolution making the request of the legislators but it supports the changes proposed by the county.
If the legislators introduce the legislation, if the legislation is supported by the entire General Assembly, and if Oconee County voters approve the changes, they would take effect on Jan. 1, 2025.
The proposed changes would increase the homestead exemption from its current $2,000 to $5,000 in 2025 and to $10,000 in 2035.
The property assessment would be frozen at its level after a person turns 65, meaning that taxes 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.
The Board of Commissioners took its action on the property taxes at a meeting that also saw it approve a commercial strip development on Malcom Bridge Road, a self-storage complex on Old Macon Highway, and six RV sites on the unbuilt Athens College of Ministry campus in the far east of the county.
The Board also got an update on construction of a “cabinet” and primary trunk line on Price Mill Road that results from a partnership between Spectrum and the county that will bring broadband to homes and small businesses in unserved parts of the county.
Resolution Passed By Board
The resolution passed by the Board requests that the county’s three legislators, Rep. Marcus Wiedower, Rep. Houston Gaines, and Sen. Bill Cowsert, introduce legislation that could change the way the county provides property tax exemptions.
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Planning Director Guy Herring Before Commission
According to the resolution, “the Board believes that it is appropriate to increase such homestead exemptions to provide for property tax relief in a comprehensive manner.”
The resolution further states that “citizens over 65 years of age should receive a further increased homestead exemption.”
“The Board has determined that the requested legislation will not adversely affect the revenues and operation of the County in any material way,” the resolution passed by the Board on Tuesday states.
The county currently provides a $2,000 exemption for all homeowners and two exemptions for persons 65 years old or older based on income. Persons must apply for and qualify for those income based exemptions.
For the first of these income based exemptions, each person who is 65 years old or older at present can be granted an exemption of $15,000 on a homestead owned and occupied by that person rather than the $2,000 exemption if the person’s net income, together with the income of a spouse sharing the residence, does not exceed $15,000 per year.
For the second of these income based exemptions, each person who is 65 years old or older can be granted an exemption from all county and school taxes on that person’s primary residence if the person’s gross household income does not exceed $52,000 for the preceding year. (That figure is inflation adjusted.)
In addition to these two income based exemptions, after a property owner turns 65, she or he can apply to freeze the property value assessment starting the following year.
Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell has said that citizens often do not know of these exemptions and that the income based application process is burdensome for the applicant and for the county.
The two existing income based exemptions would continue with the life of the recipient under the plan being proposed by the Board of Commissioners.
The county is proposing that it not issue any new income based exemptions once the homestead exemption is increased for all homeowners effective Jan. 1, 2025, and that the age-based exemptions and assessment freeze goes into effect at that same time.
How Exemption Would Work
By state law, property in the county is taxed at only 40 percent of its assessed value.
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So a home with an assessed value of $400,000 is taxed at $160,000.
If the owner occupied the home, in 2022, that taxable amount was reduced by $2,000, to $158,000, and then taxed at .005954 per dollar in the unincorporated parts of the county for county services and .0155 per dollar throughout the county for county schools.
The resulting tax on that $158,000 in 2022 was $940 for county operations and $2,449 for Oconee County Schools, or a total of $3,389.
That was a reduction of $42 as a result of the current homestead exemption.
The millage rates are set each year by the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education, so it is impossible to know for sure how the exemptions will play out in 2025 and 2035, the dates proposed for increases in the exemptions.
The millage rates for 2023 won’t be set until this summer.
If the exemption in 2022 had been $5,000, rather than $2,000, the reduction from the homestead exemption would have been $107.
If the exemption had been $15,000 for a person aged 75, the exemption would have been $321.
If the exemption were $10,000, as is being proposed for 2035, the exemption for a person not older than 75 would have been $214.
For a person older than 75, the exemption would have been $429, or 10 times the rate amount produced by the exemption at present without any age reduction.
Freezing Of Assessment
The freezing of property tax assessment at age 65 could have a greater impact that the increase in the homestead exemption, but it is very difficult to make an estimate of the amount.
Oconee County’s Tax Digest–the value of its property–increased by 15.5 percent in 2022 from a year earlier.
That was an exceptional year, but the average rate increase going back five years has been 9.4 percent.
Some of that growth was the result of new use or development of land, but most of it was the result of inflation–or the increased assessment value of the homes due to market forces.
The county rolled back its millage tax rate to fully offset inflation this past year, 2022. The Board of Education decreased the millage rate but not enough to offset inflation. The result was a 4.7 percent tax increase in property taxes for Oconee County Schools.
If the legislature and the county’s voters approve the package of changes being proposed by the county, the assessment of the home once the owner turns 65 would be frozen.
The result would be that any increase in property tax would result only from actual increase in the millage rate by the Board of Commissioners or the School Board, not from increased inflationary assessed value of the homeowner’s property.
Republican Ballot Referendum
Leadership of the Oconee County Republican Party asked voters in a nonbinding referendum in May of last year if “Oconee County Senior Citizens over the age of 70 (should) receive a reduction on their property tax collected for school tax.”
Nearly nine in 10 of those answering the Republican Ballot question wanted to grant that break.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair Daniell told me in an email message on Jan. 4 that he, Commissioner Amrey Harden, Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle, and County Administrator Justin Kirouac met with Representatives Wiedower and Gaines last year to discuss possible changes in the homestead exemption.
Daniell said the county then “requested data on the current exemptions and values from the Tax Commissioner.”
A few weeks later, Daniell said, he, Harden, and Kirouac met with Board of Education Chair Argo, “another School Board Member,” and Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch to discuss the county’s plans.
“Data provided by the Tax Commissioner was provided to the BOE,” Daniell wrote.
The Board of Commissioners discussed the proposed changes at its Goal Setting Meeting in October before voting on the resolution on Tuesday night.
I asked School Board Chair Argo in an email message on Jan. 4 to confirm that she and another School Board member had met with Daniell and Harden to discuss the proposed changes.
She confirmed the meeting in an email on Jan. 5 and said she was joined by Board Member Tim Burgess.
I asked if the Board of Education will ask the legislative delegation to make the changes being proposed by Board of Commissioners.
“Yes, we will,” she replied.
“If so, will there be a resolution that the Board will adopt, and when will that be on the agenda?” I asked.
“No, we do not pass resolutions,” Argo responded.
“Can you indicate if additional property tax reductions are being considered by the BOE?” I asked.
“Not at this time,” Argo replied.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Commission Chair Daniell said all of the work on the exemption “has been tediously gone through and we've developed a resolution that our delegation will need to proceed.”
“The one thing I would add is we're not going to take anything away from people that really need it,” County Attorney Daniel Haygood added.
“So, for example, there are some people out there that do not pay property taxes because their income is below a certain level,” Haygood continued. “We're not taking that away from them. They'll retain that. It's just new people won't get that exception. They'll get the new scheme.”
“I’m all for this,” Commissioner Amrey Harden said. “I appreciate all the effort that has been put into this.”
“I know we've had some conversations with the School Board,” he continued.
“Is this our deal, or do they have to sign off on this?” he asked.
“This is ours,” Daniell responded. “You know that you were in the meeting. There were no questions raised from that standpoint, but this does apply to the county and Board of Education property taxes.”
Harden’s Additional Questions
“If the School Board so chooses, could they do more?” Harden asked.
“Absolutely,” Daniell responded.
“So is this not a good time, have they been asked, have they volunteered that they wanted to do more?” Harden continued.
“I have not heard anybody volunteer,” Daniell responded.
“I mean, if we’re going to go to all of this trouble, I mean a courtesy call, ‘Do you all want to do more?’ before we took all this. I’m not trying to slow anything down,” Harden said.
“We’ve met with the (legislative) delegation,” Daniell said. “Talked with everybody. They’re on board with it. I believe they’ve already talked to Legislative Council (in the General Assembly) to let them know it was coming.”
“There’s plenty of time if they wanted to act,” Daniell said of the Board of Education.
“The people I talk to say ‘I haven’t had any kids in school in 20 years. I’m 80 years old. Why am I still paying school taxes?’” Harden said.
“So if the School Board wanted to do that, they could?” Harden said, referring to reducing or eliminating school taxes for people over a certain age.
Daniell answered that the Board of Education could request those changes.
County Attorney Haygood said that the county was asking the legislative leaders to “replace the four local actions” already on the books.
“This should make it a little bit easier for the Tax Commissioner,” he said.
“That’s one of the goals,” Daniell responded.
Rezones For Self-Storage Facility
Each of the rezones before the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night had generated citizen opposition when they came before the Planning Commission last month.
On Tuesday night, only the zoning requests for three self-storage buildings in the triangle of U.S. 441, Old Macon Highway, and White Oak Drive produced any citizen comments, all in opposition to the request.
Five citizens, most from the residential communities along Rockinwood Drive, Sunnyside Drive, and Ivywood Drive, raised concerns about signage, traffic, parking, and self-storage buildings themselves.
Eschol D. Graham Leasing LLC owns four of the eight parcels in the triangle created by U.S. 441, White Oak Drive, and Old Macon Highway.
Graham Leasing is seeking to rezone two of those properties to build three self-storage units.
The company plans to demolish the existing building sitting on 2.6 acres that is accessible both from White Oak Drive and Old Macon Highway.
The proposal before the Board of Commissioners was to construct two self-storage buildings on that site and one building to the now undeveloped small triangle where U.S. 441 and Old Macon Highway intersect.
The Commissioners added restrictions to the lighting to be allowed on the site but approved the requests unanimously.
Malcom Bridge Commercial Development
The proposal to build a strip commercial center on Malcom Bridge Road opposite Malcom Bridge Middle School produced only one speaker in opposition at the Planning Commission and none at the Board of Commissioners hearing.
The development, which is to include a daycare facility, a doggie daycare facility, a dry cleaner drop off/pick up center, and a small general office, will have an entrance off Malcom Bridge Road between the bus and parent entrances to the middle school.
Originally, the Board of Commissioners approved plans for access to the property via a roundabout at the parent entrance to the middle school.
Board of Commission Chair Daniell said at the time that the county proposed the roundabout as a safety measure to remove from the roadway the deputy who is assigned to the parent entrance.
When the Board of Education refused to grant easements on school property for construction of the roundabout, the county planned to change the design and build the roundabout even without the right of way from the Board of Education.
The county dropped those plans when the Board of Education would not cooperate by modifying roads on the middle school campus to hold more vehicles.
Traffic would simply back up into the roundabout, Daniell said.
The Planning Commission had given overwhelming support to the rezone requests for the self storage units and for the Malcom Bridge Road strip development, but it had voted voted 5 to 3 to recommend approval of the rezone request for the College of Ministry RV sites.
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Athens College of Ministry is planning to build a campus for 750 students on 114 acres that had been a golf course in the far eastern part of the county. The property is on the eastern side of the Oconee River, where Oconee, Clarke and Oglethorpe counties meet.
Attorney Jim Warnes, chair of the Board of Trustees of the College, told the Commission on Monday night that nothing had been constructed since the land had been rezoned for the campus in 2017 because of a lack of funds.
The College was seeking a revision of the 2017 rezone to allow for no more than six sites for the temporary parking and use of recreational vehicles.
The proposal is for the RV sites to be used to house volunteer professional workers who are assisting in the construction of improvements to the site, housing for visitors participating in college-sponsored activities, and persons attending retreats on the college campus.
Warnes said the College wanted the RV sites to be permanent, but the Oconee County planning staff recommended that the sites “shall be temporary with removal following the completion of campus construction,” and the Planning Commission agreed.
At the meeting on Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners agreed to Warnes’ request that the sites be permanent but that the RVs must be owned by persons visiting the college and participating in college events.
At the beginning of the meeting on Tuesday, Board Chair Daniell said that a groundbreaking ceremony had been held at the end of last year acknowledging completion of a “cabinet” on Price Mill Road that is the first step in upgrading broadband service in the underserved parts of the county.
“So the Charter Broadband project is underway,” Daniell said. “That box is in. They're working on another one. You'll see them on New High Shoals Road running the lines to that box to get started on that project. So very exciting times for that.”
Kirouac, Oconee County Administrator, in an email after the meeting, said that “The Cabinet is essentially the ‘Grand Central Station’ for the county broadband project in that it's where Charter will bring their primary trunk line and the fiber lines will spoke off from there.”
“They haven't determined where the second cabinet will be placed at this time,” he said.
Physical construction to homes and small businesses is targeted to begin early this year, with customer activations available shortly thereafter, according to a news release from Charter Spectrum.
Spectrum will run its network and ultimately bring Spectrum gigabit service to unserved areas in the county, according to the release. Spectrum has estimated it will reach 98 percent of addresses in Oconee County with broadband service.
In November the Board of Commissioners agreed to use $1.7 million in federal relief funds to pay Charter Communications to build out broadband in underserved areas, mostly in the central and southern parts of the county.
The agreement the Commission has signed with Charter stipulates that Charter will retain “all ownership rights in the network” and its components once it is built.
Sale Of Library, Annex, Land Under Post Office
At the meeting on Tuesday, the Board of Commissioners also took the first steps toward sale of the Government Annex Building on SR 15 in the south of Watkinsville and the Oconee County Library on Experiment Station Road in Watkinsville.
The county is expecting to move this summer into the new Administrative Building under construction at the intersection of North Main Street and U.S. 441 Bypass northeast of Watkinsville.
The Oconee County Library is planning to move to Wire Park on Barnett Shoals Road in Watkinsville.
Commission Chair Daniell said on Tuesday night that both the Annex and the Library will be surplus and that the first step is to seek sealed bids leading up to their sale.
The Board agreed to take that action.
In March the Board of Commissioners voted to accept a bid of $376,250 for the Elections Office Building, 10 Court Street, on the south side of the Courthouse, and a bid of $355,000 for the Ward Building, on the opposite side of the Courthouse at 3 Third Street.
The Board on Tuesday in separate action agreed to convey the land under the Watkinsville Post Office to the county’s Industrial Development Authority so the Authority can sell the land with the Post Office Building.
The Industrial Development Authority in October agreed to sell the Watkinsville Post Office for $1.6 million to Postal Realty Holdings LLC, a group that focuses on properties leased to the United States Postal Service.
Goal Setting Meeting
The Board of Commissioners spent nearly 40 minutes discussing revisions to the county’s property tax exemptions at the Oct. 27, 2022, Goal Setting meeting that Daniell referred to Tuesday.
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Commission Meeting 10/27/2023 (L-R)
Horton, Harden, Daniell, Commissioner Mark Thomas,
Commissioner Mark Saxon, Kirouac
Tax Commissioner Riddle, as Daniell noted, joined that discussion.
“Part of the issue with these is first you’ve got to know about them and come in and apply for them,” Daniell said of the income and age-based exemptions. “And then they’ve got to bring all the paperwork in,” he added. “You probably have to come back two or three times.”
“There’s been a lot of time and effort trying to manage that process,” he continued.
The Tax Commissioner’s Office now can track the birth date of the homeowner “and when you turn 65, that next January you could automatically get your property tax frozen at that previous year’s rate,” Riddle said.
Daniell estimated that between 2,300 and 2,400 households could qualify, and up to 700 people who are not taking advantage of the exemption at present for which they are qualified will automatically get the exemption under the proposed plan.
Harden Questions On School Tax
At that meeting in October, Harden also asked about school tax and the Board of Education.
“If they wanted to do more as it pertains to their tax,” he asked, “can they do that?”
“The changes we're making here will affect their tax revenue, but they can make any other changes they want to to affect just the school tax,” Daniell said.
“So if they want to be a little more forgiving against older people,” Harden said, “they could do that. Could they do it within the same legislative action or is that separate?”
“I believe we could work it all together,” Daniell said, “as long as they're on the same time frame.”
“That's totally their decision,” Daniell said. “They are seeing the same data that we've gotten, so they're, I'm sure, they're over there calculating what everything would cost.”
Defense Of School Tax
“We used to not hear this: ‘I don’t have kids in school. I don’t want to pay school tax’,” Tax Commissioner Riddle said.
“I don't have kids in school kids in school either,” she added. “My kids are out of school.”
“All the commercial properties, they don't have kids in school, but they pay a school tax,” she continued. “It's just the way that the Constitution just wanted to set up to fund the school system.”
“But also it draws a certain demographic to your area,” she said. “I mean having a good school system means a good community.”
“I don’t have anybody that I know of in the prison system,” Commissioner Chuck Horton, who had been a chair of the Board of Education before joining the Board of Commissioners, said. “But part of my tax money is going there.”
“I don't know there would be a lot of people,” Horton continued, “But there might be some.”
“What if you got somebody, they don't have a problem paying the tax bill but they're given a break,” he asked. “But they want to come back and say ‘Oh I'll pay the difference back.”
“I’ve had some people say that about qualifying for a senior exemption,” Riddle said. “We would just remove the exemption from the property record.”
The two videos below are on the county’s YouTube channel.
Discussion of the broadband upgrade begins at 7:20 in the first video.
Discussion of the Malcom Bridge Road commercial strip center rezone begins at 8:32 in the video.
Discussion of the self-storage units rezone begins at 14:08.
Discussion of the Athens College of Ministry rezone request is at 1:46:16 in the video.
The discussion of the property tax exemption begins at 2:04:09.
The discussion of sale of county property starts at 2:16:18 in the video.
The video ends abruptly.
Oconee County Communications Manager Diane Baggett said the storm that evening disrupted the live streaming of the meeting.
She said the Board approved unanimously the action regarding the Post Office and then adjourned.
Discussion of the homestead exemption starts at 2:52:26 in the video of the Oct. 27, 2022 Goal Setting Meeting.