Revising of Decatur’s school exemption won’t give seniors full tax break

City Schools of Decatur is in the process of revising its Senior Homestead Exemption, which originally took effect in Jan. 2017. Bill Banks file photo for the AJC

City Schools of Decatur is in the process of revising its Senior Homestead Exemption, which originally took effect in Jan. 2017. Bill Banks file photo for the AJC

With City Schools of Decatur preparing to revise its senior homestead exemption, it’s a foregone conclusion it won’t look anything like the current iteration. The original took effect Jan. 2017, where residents 65 and over were given full exemption of all school taxes. But in the past 3½ years the exemption has cost the district almost triple what was anticipated.

In late May the nine-person homestead exemption committee held their second meeting (virtually), and named Paula Collins as chairman. Their official charge is as straightforward as it is complex: “ … to help seniors retire in place while promoting age, race and income diversity in Decatur.”

While also, one might add, keeping it on or under budget.

Before the initial exemption took effect, CSD estimated it would lose $1.2 million in revenue annually. But a study completed last October by Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School Center for State & Local Finance, showed the district losing $3.41 million in 2018 and $3.24 million in 2017. The Decatur school board has stated unequivocally it wants the new exemption constructed so losses hover around that original $1.2 million projection.

“The [GSU] study showed the exemption didn’t have a demonstrable effect on seniors moving out of their homes, and it really didn’t effect [the leveling enrollment] in the school system,” Collins said. “What it couldn’t answer, and what we need to find out, is if that exemption had not been in place, what would the effect have been?

“One thing we hope to learn through a survey,” she added, “is if the tax exemption is dramatically reduced, will that influence whether you stay or move? Let’s say, for example, you’re taking the exemption right now and you’re saving $4,000 in taxes. But with the new exemption, you might only save $1,000. If you have to come up with another $3,000 a year, how would that influence whether you stay or leave?”

Essentially Collins believes the committee’s main focus is taking a deeper dive into the data than GSU. She points out that in the second billing of 2019 1,391 residents 65 and over took the school tax exemption. She feels the committee needs to break it down into how many were 70 and over, 75 and over and 80 and over.

The committee’s deadline for recommending a new exemption to the board is Sept. 1. The original exemption had a five-year sunset, meaning it expires Dec. 31, 2021. For a revised exemption to take effect in Jan. 2022, CSD must introduce new legislation to the state’s General Assembly during the 2021 session.

Even with all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, including when the general assembly will meet next year, Superintendent David Dude said recently, “I can’t imagine any flexibility on extending the Senior Homestead Exemption. That’s one deadline that feels absolutely firm. We need to keep this moving despite what’s happening around us.”

Collins says she has no doubt about delivering the recommendations on time.

“We need the data and the input from the community,” she said. “As long as we can get that, we can figure out the best way to spend that $1.2 million.