Sunday, April 14, 2024

Oconee County Commissioners To Begin Town Hall Meeting On Tuesday With Review of Ballot Items For Homestead Exemptions

***Same Topic As Town Hall In January***

Oconee County Commissioners are holding their second Town Hall Meeting of the year at 6 p.m. on April 16, with the initial focus once again on the 10 items on the ballot on May 21 that will increase homestead exemptions and automate the freezing of property tax assessments for those 65 and older.

Commission Chair John Daniell has been using Town Hall meetings to explain the initiative going back to March of last year, and he opened the Town Hall Meeting in January with a summary of the changes that will take place if voters approve all 10 items on the ballot.

Citizens are encouraged to ask any questions they want answered at Town Hall Meeting. There is no time limit on how long they speak or how frequently they come to the microphone to pose a question.

And Daniell and the other commissioners respond to the questions posed.

After Daniell ended his comments and opened the floor up for questions in January, 15 people came forward, five of them more than once, to ask questions about the ballot items and a variety of topics.

The first seven questions were about the ballot items, and then the next speaker turned to the Oconee County Library.

That speaker was at the microphone for 20 minutes, with four of the Commissioners engaged in a sometimes heated exchange.

References to the Library continued through the remainder of the meeting.

Ballot Items

The speakers in January were supportive of the ballot initiative to increase the homestead exemptions, and several urged Daniell to generate more material that can be presented to help people know what the county is proposing and why.

Flyer On County Web Site

That meeting, as will be the case on Tuesday, was at the new county Administrative Building, 7635 Macon Highway, North of Watkinsville.

The county web site now has a downloadable Referendum FAQ flyer that responds to many of the questions asked in January and at earlier Town Hall Meetings as well as an illustration of what the referendum means for a homeowner with a property valued at $400,000.

One of those who spoke in January asked specifically for that information.

If the 10 ballot items pass, a person with a home appraised at $400,000 will get a reduction in property taxes in 2025 of $59.47, with $14.47 of that in a reduction in taxes paid for county services and $45.0 in a reduction of taxes paid for Oconee County Schools.

That calculation is based on the current millage rate of 4.824 for the county and 15.0 for the schools.

That savings will go to $158.59 in 2035, reflecting a decrease in $38.59 in county taxes and $120.0 in school taxes. Again, that is based on the current millage rates.

For a $400,000 home owned by a person 75 years old or older, the savings in 2025 will be $207.71, with $62.71 of that in reduced county taxes and $145.0 in school taxes.

The savings likely will be much greater in future years, because all homeowners aged 65 and older will have the property assessments frozen in 2025 if the ballot items pass.

If assessments go down, the taxes will drop to reflect those assessment, but if the assessments go up, the taxes will be based on the 2025 assessments.

Summary Of Ballot Items

The county web site also has a 16-page document that provides details of the exemptions and freeze being proposed as well as a listing of each of the 10 ballot items and the reasons each of the 10 is before voters for approval.

If all 10 items are passed–and all must pass for any of the changes to take place–home owners will see an increase in the homestead exemption from the current state minimum of $2,000 to $5,000. That exemption will increase to $10,000 in 2035.

Home owners 65 years old and older will have an automatic freeze in the assessed value of their property.

Home owners aged 75 and older will have an additional $10,000 exemption in the value of their property that is taxed.

The General Assembly approved on the last day of the just-completed session House Bill 1019, which will put on the ballot in November a referendum to increase the state minimum exemption from $2,000 to $4,000. (See Note Below.)

The actual language of the ballot items before Oconee County Voters increased the county exemption by $3,000 in 2025 and $8,000 in 2023 because it assumes the $2,000 in state exemption.

So if the increased state exemption passes, the county exemptions will be on top of the new state exemption.

Cancelling Existing Programs

The county already has in place programs to provide property tax relief based on income and to freeze assessment for those property owners 65 years old and older.

Property owners have to apply for these exemptions, and documenting and monitory income is required.

These programs will be eliminated if the 10 ballot items are approved.

Jennifer Riddle, Oconee County Tax Commissioner, told me in an email exchange last week that, in 2023, the county had 1,015 home owners who currently are receiving the property tax freeze.

She said this also is referred to a “floating exemption because the exemption amount floats (changes each year) to bring the current taxable value back to the base year value where the taxable value is frozen.” The ballot item reflects that language.

Riddle said that 967 homeowners are participating in the other income-based programs that will be phased out.

Of those 967 on the current income-based programs, 39 are aged 65 with a net income of less than $15,000. They receive a homestead exemption of $15,000 at present.

Another 275 are age 65 or older with a total net income of the applicant home owner and spouse of less than $10,000. Those home owners receive a $15,000 homestead exemption at present.

The final 653 are age 65 or more with a total gross household income of $59,184 or less. They receive a 100 percent exemption on their home and up to five acres.

Impact On Existing Programs

Daniell said at the January Town Hall meeting “that some of those (exemptions) actually really need to be audited, and we just don't have the staff in the Tax Commissioner's Office to do some of that.”

In addition, he said, “we really have a lot of citizens who don’t even know they could do any of these exemptions at all,” he said.

The ballot items will make the freeze automatic, based on the age of the oldest of the home owners.

For those who are receiving the $15,000 exemption, Daniell said, “when you look at freezing your value at 65 versus taking s $15,000 (exemption), that will almost double that exemption. So anybody who's under this exemption goes to the automatic freeze of 65 and will receive a higher benefit.”

All of these individuals on the income based exemptions will continue to receive those exemptions as long as their incomes remain unchanged, he said.

Daniell acknowledged that “some of those (exemptions) are a pretty significant tax breaks, so we're trying to allow time for that to process through. It help us maintain the millage rate when there's not a big change in the exemption rate.”

“It’s really simple,” Victoria Cruz said when she approached the Board for the first time. “Just vote yes on everything.”

Change Of Subject

The eighth speaker to approach the microphone at the January meeting was Rebecca Billings.

Screen Shot: Billings At Podium 1/17/2024

“It's been over seven months since you were made aware of the explicit material available to children at the Oconee County Library,” she said. “I would be interested to know specifically what steps you have taken regarding this issue?”

Over the next 20 minutes, in a back and forth with four of the five commissioners, Billings said the Commissioners should withdraw Oconee County’s two libraries from the Athens Regional Library System, disassociate itself from the Georgia Library Association, and appoint a Parental Advisory Board to make decisions on books for the libraries.

“It does not take someone with a degree to look at a book and see if it's okay for a child,” she said. “It should be really simple to agree on what's appropriate for kids,” she added.

She also wanted the Commission to fill a vacancy on the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees immediately.

Next Speakers

Julie Mauck followed Billings and said the American Library Association was engaged in “something called queering the catalog and unfortunately with LGBTQ content comes sexually explicit content.”

“This isn't about LGBTQ per se,” she said. “It's about any heterosexual--any kind of sexually explicit content.”

Mauck was at the podium for more than five minutes and was followed by Victoria Cruz, who switched the topic to her concern about globalism and election integrity.

Cruz remained at the podium for 10 minutes and did include a complaint about “pornography” in the libraries.

Discussion finally switched when Sharon Thelen, president of the Dials Mill Plantation Home Owners Association, asked about plans for SR 316 interchanges at Dials Mill Road and McNutt Creek Road.

But the concern with the Library never faded fully.

Thelen suggested critics of the public library should collaborate with the private schools.

Kirsten Magee said she was concerned about road construction on Experiment Station Road and “I'm much more concerned about safety at this point for what my child is doing on the road than what he's reading in the library. I'm just going to say that.”

More On Libraries

Amanda McCoy said she wanted to talk about Heritage Park, but “I just want to say I have a five-year-old, and when the library is open we were in there two, three times a week every week. We go there a lot.”

Screen Shot Town Hall 1/17/2024
Commission Chair Daniell In Center

She said she “appreciate(s) you guys not letting a couple” of those who have complained “decide what content my child sees.”

Dan Magee said he wanted to talk about parks, but he said “regional support” is important for the Oconee County libraries.

Stephen Aleshire said the critics of the library are opposed to “a conscious effort by people to subvert the developmental tasks of children. So this is much more sophisticated than has been brought up to this point in this particular meeting.”

Daniell ended the meeting with a summary of road and other county projects.

The entire meeting lasted just less than two hours.


I was traveling and missed the January Town Hall Meeting.

When I returned, two people told me I needed to make sure I watched, and one of those two encouraged me to write about the meeting, since it had never been reported upon elsewhere.

At the meeting of the Oconee County Democratic Party last month, Dan Magee and Commission Chair Daniell also talked about the January Town Hall Meeting, indicating that the meeting was continuing to have some impact.

The video of the meeting has had 185 view, according to the YouTube Report.

I decided the best way to write about the Town Hall Meeting in January was in the context of the Town Hall Meeting scheduled for Tuesday and of the 10 ballot items that will be discussed at that meeting.

In the video below, which is on the county’s YouTube Channel, Daniell opens the meeting at 4:59 and moves immediately to a discussion of the ballot items dealing with homestead exemptions and the freeze on assessments.

The first speaker comes to the podium at 13:34.

Billings began her questions at 25:18 in the video.

Mauck came to the podium at 44:56, and the remainder of the speakers followed.

Note: I have changed the amount of the increase in the homestead exemption that would result from voter approval of the statewide ballot in November. Chairman Daniell sent me an email message at 9:25 a.m. on 4/15/2024 indicating that $4,000 is the correct figure. The law says that the homestead exemption will increase from $2,000 to $4,000, but the language in the ballot item says it will increase from $2,000 to $10,000. Daniell said that he expects the $10,000 needs to be multiplied by .40, since taxes are based on .40 of assessment, to get to the $4,000 of the actual benefit. Though these are state mandates, the local governments actually pick up the cost of the exemptions.

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