Cobb’s rising senior population sparks debate over school tax, housing

File Photo: Seniors take a break during the Cobb Senior Services Information Fair at the Cobb Civic Center in Marietta Phil Skinner

File Photo: Seniors take a break during the Cobb Senior Services Information Fair at the Cobb Civic Center in Marietta Phil Skinner

Cobb County schools are expected to lose $101 million in 2018 due to a school tax exemption for people over the age of 62, leading some to question what they see as a construction boom in senior housing.

Cobb’s senior population is outstripping other age groups. This trend has been seized on by those who see a need for more senior housing, and those who worry about the impact on schools as a growing proportion of the population qualifies for that tax exemption.

The Cobb County School District has not taken an official position on the tax exemption or new senior housing. But school officials and parents have been increasingly vocal about their discomfort with the direction of Cobb’s growth.

“I think the school board has to be a part of those conversations on the front end because it is directly impacting revenue,” said school board member David Morgan. “We certainly don’t want to seem unreasonable.”

By 2040, the number of working-age Cobb residents is expected to increase by six percent, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. On the other hand, the number of people 65 and older is projected to rise by 133 percent, comprising 72 percent of total growth—the largest of any metro county.

The number of school-aged children, 17 and younger, is expected to increase by nine percent.

Many people say seniors have been paying into the school system for years, and it’s not fair to expect them to continue to do so, especially those living on fixed incomes.

Even among those concerned by the loss in revenue, no one has publicly suggested the state Legislature do away with the exemption altogether. But they do worry about building too many new residential developments marketed toward seniors.

Despite a recovering economy and growing population, the Cobb school district has about 900 fewer teachers now than it did before the recession, said district spokesperson Donna Lowry.

Melissa O’Brien of the Preserve West Cobb advocacy group accused some developers of seeking to rezone properties to residential senior living in order to build denser projects.

“What was once an exemption to provide a break for seniors living on a fixed income has morphed into something more costly for our school district and our community,” she told the County Commission at a recent meeting. “Every business that looks to move here or stay here is looking at the quality of our public education system. It is a fundamental element of our economic engine.”

O’Brien said she was not against the school tax exemption, but called for a “more measured approach” to rezoning new senior living developments.

Lance Lamberton heads the Cobb Taxpayers Association and benefits from the school tax exemption. He is against limiting senior housing.

To say that “because they have a senior exemption on school taxes, that therefore they should be prohibited from building residential facilities for older people is to me very offensive,” Lamberton said. “It makes me angry when I hear that.”

Lamberton said he was not concerned about the abuse of the zoning process.

Becky Kurtz, manager of aging and independence services for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said Cobb actually needs more senior housing of a certain kind.

“There is not enough quality, affordable housing in metro Atlanta to meet the needs of the region’s fast-growing population of older adults,” she wrote in an email.

Exemptions attract older residents

Cobb County’s is among the most generous senior tax exemptions in the state: Everyone over 62 gets it. In 2017, 51,000 households qualified. That’s up 59 percent since 2006, when it was 32,000.

Other jurisdictions have more complicated formulations. They may exempt a certain amount of the assessed value of a home, or place income limits on the school tax break.

Such exemptions, once rare, have become far more common in Georgia, according to a 2016 study by the Center for State and Local Finance at Georgia State University. The study found that the number of state school districts with age-based tax exemptions rose from less than one percent in 1970 to 55 percent in 2010.

Moreover, the study found that school tax exemptions for seniors attracted new older residents.

“We find significant effects with age-targeted tax exemptions leading to higher populations of older homeowners relative both to younger homeowners and to older renters,” the study concluded. “These exemptions can have a substantial effect on the demographic composition of an area.”

Using the 2010 millage rate, the study calculated that Cobb’s senior tax exemption was equivalent to an annual subsidy of $290 from each younger homeowner in the county.

County officials say they are mindful of the need to balance the needs of schools and seniors.

Commissioner Bob Ott said opponents of new senior housing are overlooking the fact that property can always be developed under its current zoning, likely bringing in more families with children in overcrowded schools.

“What the board has heard from the school district is ‘You’ve got to manage your growth because it’s making it difficult for us,” Ott said. “It’s almost as if they don’t want us to let anything happen to the land, which we can’t do.”

Commission Chairman Mike Boyce said the board examines each proposed senior living facility on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s a tricky one because it does in fact impact the schools,” he said. “But it’s also a response by the board to an aging population.”