There was singing on the courthouse steps and debate inside on Thursday, Dec. 20, when Blount County commissioners debated and ultimately passed a property tax freeze for senior citizens.
Before the commission meeting, members and supporters of two area citizen’s groups, Citizens for Blount County’s Future and Citizens for Better Government, gathered on the courthouse steps to sing Christmas carols to encourage commissioners not to be the “Grinch” stealing a tax cut from seniors. The county ordinance on the agenda was to grant qualified seniors a break by freezing their property taxes at the current rate.
Linda King with Citizens for Blount County’s Future said there were 35 people on hand for the musical protest. “We think in the long term if commissioners vote for the tax freeze it will save money,” she said. “If you raise taxes year after year, you’ll force seniors out. Development then will come in and cause more need for schools and infrastructure. Seniors have no need for infrastructure.”
Jim Folts said the move was a good idea. “Seniors are the least expensive residence a county can have,” he said. “They don’t have children in school, don’t occupy jail cells and don’t demand a lot of police protection.”
Inside, debate was strong from the commissioners on the tax cut.
Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves said she was not initially in favor of the measure. “Being a bleeding-heart liberal social worker, emotions sway me, but numbers are what swayed me here,” she said. Pitts Reeves encouraged commissioners to vote for the measure because it would prevent seniors from being thrown off family property for being unable to pay rising property taxes. The measure also would prevent “sacred” land from being developed and allowing families with children to move in and cause a need for more schools, she said.
Commissioner Mike Walker said the measure was challenging. “I’ve probably been more confused by this issue than any other issue brought before this commission. This is not a simple vote, and everybody takes advantage of it,” he said.
Walker said the state law allowing counties to consider the measure locally would allow only five acres of property to be subject to the freeze. The property tax freeze is for individuals 65 or older and must be reapplied for annually. If the property owner dies and their spouse wasn’t included in the property tax freeze application, then the property tax goes up to the then current levels, and the spouse whose name wasn’t on the application would have to apply. This could put a large burden on the surviving spouse if their name wasn’t on the application with the property owner in the first place.
“It applies the new tax rate to the wife just when the family’s income goes down when the husband dies,” he said. “I’m going to vote for this, but it is going to come back to bite us.”
The freeze has an income limit for seniors of $31,220 annual income or less for the property owner to be eligible for the freeze.
Commissioner Holden Lail said he wasn’t happy with the state law allowing the counties to adopt the measure because it wasn’t what county leaders had hoped it would be. “Like a lot of things that go to Nashville, it’s not what we thought we had,” he said. “My concern is we don’t drop an additional burden on citizens.”
Commissioner Bob Proffitt said seniors have a chance to plan and prepare for the tax freeze. “Seniors know ahead of time when they’re going to be 65,” he said.
Proffitt wasn’t happy with the appeals process for the program. “The trustee is judge and jury,” he said. “There is no appeals process.”
Commissioner David Ballard said a vote was needed that night. “If we don’t vote on this in front of us right now, senior citizens are at the mercy of whatever we do in June. If we hold the line on taxes, no harm, no foul,” he said.
Commissioner Steve Samples said he wanted to see the property tax freeze happen but didn’t see a reason to pass it immediately. “I’m not convinced there’s going to be a property tax increase,” he said. “Unless you think there’s going to be a tax increase, there’s no reason to do this tonight.”
Commissioner Steve Hargis said he initially supported the measure at the ballot box. “I’m one of the 81 percent who voted for this,” he said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would not have voted for it.”
Commissioner voted 12 to nine in favor of the measure, with seven commissioners reading conflict of interest statements that either they or members of their families are 65 or older and may be affected by the decision.
Voting for the property tax freeze were commissioners Ballard, Tonya Burchfield, Ron French, Brad Harrison, Hasty, Scott Helton, Joe McCauley, Monika Murrell, Pitts Reeves, Samples and David Graham.
Voting against the measure were Gary Farmer, Hargis, John Keeble, Lail, Mike Lewis, Proffitt, Kenneth Melton, Bob Ramsey and Gerald Kirby.
Blount County Trustee Scott Graves said his office will process the applications for residents that qualify. “We’re getting ready to draft a letter to send out to all taxpayers notifying them that the property tax freeze has passed, and the letter will include information about how to qualify and what the rules are,” he said. “We’ll send that letter out and take applications through toward the end of March.”
Graves said residents who feel they qualify can call the office before coming so staff can let them know what to bring.
“There will be several things we’ll need, such as proof of age and income, proof of ownership of property and proof that the property is their primary or principal residence,” Graves said. “Someone that resides in Indiana and that’s where their primary house is wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the tax freeze the way the law is written.” The commissioners also improved the ordinance regarding animal control. “This is in response to vicious animals,” said animal control committee chair Steve Samples. “It gives the animal control officer authority to seize animals and cite the owners to court and charge them up to a $500 fine in General Sessions Court.