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J. H. Osborne • Jul 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — A proposal to “freeze” county property taxes, under certain guidelines, for property owners over age 65 could finally come for a vote next month by the Sullivan County Commission.

A group formed in January to study the issue met Thursday to talk about what to recommend to the full commission.

Most members of the group said they’d prefer delaying action on the issue for another year.

But Commissioner John McKamey, sponsor of the original resolution calling for the tax freeze, said he’d rather put the matter to a full commission vote.

It’s been deferred the past several months as the commission awaited the group’s recommendation.

Those who supported delaying action until next year made several points: Even if the commission approves the “freeze,” it won’t become effective until next year; next year is a reappraisal year, which would put all residential properties on a more even assessment; and the “freeze” doesn’t actually cut anyone’s taxes — its only true impact is if and when a tax rate hike comes into play, or during reappraisals.

Several members also said they flat out prefer another form of tax relief, local expansion of a state rebate program, to implementation of the “freeze.”

McKamey said those arguments would likely be made again next year, so he’d prefer just putting it to a full commission vote.

Group 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 McKamey.

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

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 County Commission.

Earlier this year, 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 Comptroller’s Office, didn’t find much support from commissioners in the weeks following introduction of McKamey’s proposal.

“I think we’re obligated to go through with it,” McKamey said Thursday.

According to the State Comptroller’s Web site:

•Eighteen other Tennessee counties already have adopted the Property Tax Freeze Act, as well as 10 cities.

•For tax year 2008, the annual income level at which Sullivan County property owners (over age 65) would have been eligible for the property tax freeze (if it had been enacted by the County Commission) was $29,700. The 2008 figure for Washington County was $29,070. Most surrounding counties, which had a cutoff of $24,000 for tax year 2007, had 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.

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 earlier this year.

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

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 State Comptroller’s Office will calculate the income limit for each county using a formula outlined in the Property Tax Freeze Act.

•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.

For more information visit www.comptroller.state.tn.us/pa/taxfreeze.htm.

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