The Walker County school board is holding five public meetings in July as it prepares to levy a new tax rate for property owners and adopt a new budget for the school system.

Four of the meetings have already been held. On Thursday, July 25, at 6 p.m., the school board will hold its final public meeting regarding the proposed property tax rate increase in the boardroom at 201 South Duke St. in LaFayette.

The meetings, which give the public a chance to scrutinize and comment on the two issues, are required under Georgia law.

2019-20 budget

Two of the meetings center on the Board of Education’s proposed budget for the 2019-20 school year. Both meetings have already taken place. The first meeting was held July 9 at the Walker County Advancing Education Center in Chickamauga. The second meeting was held July 15 in the board's boardroom at 201 S. Duke Street.

Teresa Thomas, who attended one of the meetings, said, “I believe we need this (proposed budget that increases teacher salaries). I believe in this Board of Education, and I'm not here to be adversarial. … When you leave here today, and you sit down at your dinner table tonight, and you have a nice warm meal, I want you to think about the little children in this county and the seniors that don't.”

Thomas said there are many in the county who can’t afford the proposed property tax rate hike called for by the new budget. “Maybe we don't need to go to that rate. Maybe half of that rate?” she said.

“There is always another solution, another idea,” she said.

Schools Superintendent Damon Raines pointed out that the school board was, basically, seeking to return to the financial ground it stood on three years ago by adopting that same millage (property tax) rate it had then.

“We rolled back (the millage rate) for three years in a row,” Raines said. “What we're proposing is to go back to where we were. That's where our community seemed to be very comfortable.”

“Back to where we were?” Thomas asked. “My question is, why do we have to go back to get to where we were when we can cut this proposal in half, or better yet, have a one-cent tax (to pay for the budget needs). You know, we don't want to just carte blanche do something because ‘that's where we were.’”

At the July 15 meeting the board voted whether to approve the proposed $96,610,818 budget (but not the property tax increase as the funding mechanism) and associated salary schedules. Board member Bobby McNabb dissented.

Millage rate increase

Three of the public meetings focused on how to fund an increased budget via a proposed millage (property tax) rate hike.

Under Georgia law, the school board must hold three public meetings if the new millage rate brings in more revenue than the previous year’s millage rate. The meetings give the public an opportunity to understand and comment on the increase.

Two of the millage rate meetings took place on July 15, the same day (at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.) as the board's budget meetings, causing some confusion among citizens about when to show up for what.

During the two millage rate meetings, this is what some of the members of the public had to say:

“When you get my age, we've paid in,” said Dale Pettigrew, a small farm owner now concerned about losing his home. “We've done our part, and there needs to be a cut-off and most of our tax base is education.”

“Property owners get the brunt of everything and it needs to stop,” Pettigrew said. “All I'm advocating is that we need a fairer way of doing this. I totally support the system. I totally support what they are doing. The teachers need the money. And the people who that are currently working and still have jobs have a much easier way of contributing than the people who have been retired for some time. That's my big problem.

One woman who asked not to be identified said: “My point is that you go to the property owners to make up deficits, to bail the county out, to make everything better, just like he said, and age aside, find another way to get this revenue to where it's fairer.”

At the conclusion of the second meeting on the millage rate increase, school board member Karen Stoker advised the audience that there are age-related exemptions available to avoid having to pay school-related millage tax.

Break for seniors citizens

County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker has a solution for the elderly worried about the school board-proposed millage tax increase:

“In Walker County homeowners who were 70 years of age or older on January 1 of the taxable year may qualify for a school tax homestead exemption of $50,000 off the taxable (assessed) value of their home.

“If the home appraises for $100,000 in fair market value, in Georgia you are taxed on 40 percent of this value, or $40,000. In this situation, the age 70 homeowner would not pay school taxes on the home.

“If the home is on more than five acres of land, they would still have taxes on the additional acreage and any out-buildings they might have on the property.”

Jan Morris is assistant editor for the Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.

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