Sullivan panel studying tax relief for senior citizens

J. H. Osborne • Jan 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — A select group of Sullivan County officials met Friday to discuss a proposed property tax freeze for some senior citizens.

The meeting included distribution of new information on how many property owners in Sullivan County could potentially qualify, as well as new figures from the state on eligibility based on annual income, one person who attended the meeting later told the Times-News.

The group was formed by vote of the Sullivan County Commission on Jan. 22. Members include Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey, Sullivan County Property Assessor Bobby Icenhour, Sullivan County Trustee Frances Harrell, Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey, and Sullivan County Commissioners Eddie Williams and John McKamey.

Williams is chairman of the commission’s Budget Committee. McKamey is sponsor of the resolution calling for the county to enact, locally, a state law to put the property tax freeze in place.

McKamey’s name was not among the first list of members submitted to the commission by Godsey, but it was added after another commissioner suggested it was a logical move given McKamey’s sponsorship of the measure.

McKamey, in fact, had asked that such a group be formed.

Godsey, on Jan. 22, said the group would study the tax freeze and report back to the full commission next month, prior to a commission vote on McKamey’s proposal.

McKamey, contacted by the Times-News Friday evening, said it’s his understanding the group will make a recommendation, or recommendations, to the full commission.

It was unclear whether any prior public notice of the Friday meeting was given.

The state’s open meetings law requires public notice for meetings of groups which will either make a direct decision concerning public policy — or influence such a decision by making recommendations to a governing body.

McKamey said he was surprised when he looked around the room during the group’s first meeting Friday afternoon and noticed not a single member of the news media.

“That dawned on me, because no one was there,” McKamey said. “I kind of questioned that in my mind. This stuff needs to be discussed in the open.”

McKamey said no meeting time was announced when the county commission voted to form the group, but he was called at home and informed of the meeting’s time and place later that same day.

On Friday, Godsey’s secretary told the Times-News she was under the impression the meeting had been announced during the county commission meeting just after the group’s formation was given the thumbs up.

County Attorney Dan Street, in answer to questions from the Times-News, said it’s his opinion that the property tax freeze study group clearly falls under the state’s opening meetings, or “Sunshine” law.

Like McKamey, Street said that although formation of the group was OK’d during the county commission meeting earlier in the week, he didn’t think a meeting time or place was announced.

In November 2006, voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment to pave the way for a state law making tax breaks for senior citizens an option at the local level.

To become effective in Sullivan County, the tax freeze program must be authorized by the Sullivan County Commission.

Earlier this month, McKamey submitted a proposal to bring about that authorization.

The property tax “freeze,” which would apply to homeowners over age 65 with annual incomes below an amount set for each county by the state’s Comptroller’s Office, hasn’t found much support from commissioners.

McKamey said Friday’s meeting included distribution of information to the group by both Icenhour and Harrell, including:

•Eight other counties (Anderson, Blount, Bradley, Davidson, Hamblen, Knox, Roane and Wilson) already have adopted the Property Tax Freeze Act. (According to the state’s Web site, Smith County — as well as the cities of Manchester and Memphis — also have adopted the program.)

•Icenhour told the group he plans to visit several of those counties to gain input on the issue.

•The latest figures from the state Comptroller’s Office, for 2008, show the annual income level at which Sullivan County property owners (over age 65) would be eligible for the property tax freeze (if it is enacted by the county commission) has risen to $29,700. The 2008 figure for Washington County is $29,070. Most surrounding counties, which had a cutoff of $24,000 last year, have gone up to $24,790.

•The number of people who currently benefit from a state rebate program for property taxes in Sullivan County is now estimated as high as 2,200.

McKamey said he hopes the group will keep an open mind in considering the facts as information is gathered in the coming weeks.

In past public discussion of the property tax freeze proposal:

•Bailey has said the program could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, not only in lost future property tax revenues (current taxes wouldn’t be cut), but also in extra administrative costs.

•Harrell echoed the latter when she spoke to the full commission last week.

•Williams has drawn focus to other options for providing property tax relief to low-income, elderly property owners.

McKamey said the full group met Friday and no future meeting date was set.

According to information McKamey distributed when he first introduced the property tax freeze proposal, if Sullivan County adopts the program:

•The tax freeze program is not intended to displace other forms of tax relief for the elderly and disabled, such as the state’s existing property tax rebate program.

•To qualify for the tax freeze, the property owner must file an application each year with the county trustee’s office.

•The property on which taxes will be frozen must be owned by the applicant and used as their principal place of residence.

•The applicant must be 65 years of age or older by the end of the year in which the application is filed.

•The applicant must have an income, from all sources, that does not exceed the county income limit established for that tax year.

•Each year, the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office will calculate the income limit for each county using a formula outlined in the “Property Tax Freeze Act.”

•For tax year 2007, the income limit for Sullivan County was $28,750 (compared to $28,140 for Washington County, and $24,000 for Hawkins, Greene, Hancock , Carter and Johnson counties). All those numbers have since changed for tax year 2008, according to McKamey’s account of information distributed by Icenhour on Friday.

•In determining eligibility based on total income, income of all owners of the property will be combined.

•If improvements are made to the property in question, the base tax amount would increase to reflect the new value.

Online: http://www.comptroller.state.tn.us/pa/taxfreeze.htm

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