Loudon seniors ask: ‘Where's my property tax freeze?'
Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
LOUDON — While Loudon County has been quick to approve tax breaks for large corporations, seniors in the county have been waiting since 2006 for an expanded property tax relief program already enacted in surrounding counties.
County Commission on Monday debated less than a half-hour before approving a 10-year payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) deal for Tate & Lyle, one of the largest employers in the county. In exchange, the county will receive a range of economic, legal and environmental incentives.
Since voters statewide approved the "senior tax freeze" in 2006, the county has granted tax breaks to several large private companies, including a 10-year PILOT for Italian tile maker Del Conca in 2012. The company predicted it would create up to 178 new jobs within five or six years.
"Where's my property tax freeze?" Loudon resident and senior Aileen Longmire asked the commission.
Earlier this week, Loudon seniors Roy Shubert and Harrison Schaffer took time out from shooting a game of pool at the Loudon Senior Center to offer their opinion on the senior tax freeze.
As property owners both "way past 65" they said they were in favor of any additional property tax relief for seniors. As longtime residents they said they were aware of the tax-incentive programs for large corporations in the county.
"They should take care of the seniors first," Shubert said.
Schaffer said his taxes keep rising with every new assessment.
"They keep reappraising it higher and higher, but you know you can't get out of it ... what they say it's worth," he said.
Loudon Activist Pat Hunter, a senior and a property owner, said it's all about money and politics. Seniors are a reliable revenue sources for the county, she said.
"These are the people who have been paying their taxes on time for 30 years," she said.
"They court the senior vote but they never do what they promise," she said.
In November 2006, more than 80 percent of Tennessee voters approved the amendment giving the General Assembly the authority for counties and/or municipalities to adopt a local option property tax freeze for taxpayers 65 years old or older. In its 2007 session, the General Assembly enacted the property tax freeze act, which became effective July 1, 2007.
According to the state comptroller's office, 29 counties have since enacted the tax freeze, including Knox, Blount, Roane, Anderson and Campbell. A number of cities, including Oak Ridge, have also adopted the program.
Homeowners qualifying for the program will have property taxes on their principal residence frozen at a base tax amount, which is the amount of taxes owed in the year they first qualify for the program. Thereafter, as long as the owner continues to qualify for the program, the property taxes owed for that property will not change, even if there is a property tax rate increase.
In 2008, then-Loudon County Commissioner Austin Shaver tried unsuccessfully to have the commission implement the tax freeze. He estimated 700 to 900 residents would benefit from the program.
Then-Commissioner Don Miller thought those eligible would be as many as 1,800 people. In 2008 the county was also facing the challenge of funding a school building program that eventually required a 20-cent property tax increase.
According to former Commissioner Roy Bledsoe, there were at least two issues that weighed against the county's adoption of the tax freeze legislation. First of all was the negative impact on the county's revenue. Also, the program rules required oversight to confirm eligibility requirements, Bledsoe said.
"The county would have needed to hire more help to keep on top of it," he said.
County Mayor Buddy Bradshaw said he's concerned about helping seniors deal with rising property taxes. He said he is going to be looking at the tax relief opportunities currently in place for seniors and the proposed tax freeze program to see which offers the best prospects both for seniors and for the county.
A tax relief program for seniors and disabled veterans that uses matching state and county funds to reimburse property tax bills was already in existence in 2008 and continues to this day. At the time, Commissioner Miller suggested the existing program be improved.
Among the options would be expanding the existing program and raising the $24,000 limit to $33,000, Miller said. The main reason to use an existing program would be to lower the cost of administering the program, he said.
Trustee Chip Miller administers the current program that offers tax relief for seniors, disabled vets and others. The program is targeted at those with incomes up to $28,690. About 737 residents in Loudon used the program in 2014, he said.
The state calculates the maximum income for each county that has adopted the tax freeze program. If Loudon adopted the tax freeze program the maximum yearly income for 2015 would be $38,270.
Implementing a tax freeze program serving a larger number of residents would be more complicated and might require additional resources in the Trustees' office, Miller said.
Current county commissioner Van Shaver said he's not ready to give up on the tax freeze just yet.
"I do plan to bring it back up in the near future," he said.
The program as presented needs some improvements, he said.
"The final version of the program the state passed was really not that good and has a pretty low minimum income to qualify. It's actually pretty complicated," he said.