The Pickens County Seniors For Change meeting last week, where nearly 150 concerned residents came to hear about next steps for getting a senior tax exemption here, was the largest meeting we’ve covered in months.
We’re always thrilled to see citizens speak their minds, but we were glad our state senator Steve Gooch was there to offer reasonable precautions about the long-term implications of a tax exemption.
Three things he said stuck out.
First: “If you take away half the people in this room that are paying, the other half have to make up the difference unless the expenses are cut. If you eliminate half the taxpayers in the system the burden is a shift to the people that are still paying.”
Second: “Whatever you put forward will pass. I can almost assure you. Be careful what you ask for because you’re probably going to get it,” Gooch said.
Third: He said in every county he’s worked with on these has been a “significant” increase to the millage rate after an exemption passed.
Like commission chair Rob Jones (who was wrongly described at the meeting as backing the group) said, we’re not opposed to exploring the dollars and cents of what an expanded exemption would look like. (Pickens currently offers a full exemption for residents over 62 who have a household income of less than $25,000).
However, this is not time to be hasty. Poor planning and research now could lead to disaster. And once passed, it can’t be quickly, if ever, reversed.
Gooch likened removing or changing an exemption once it’s in place as hard as taking away Social Security benefits.
According to the US Census, Pickens County has almost a 21 percent senior citizen population. If we enact something like Gilmer County – a 100 percent exemption for anyone 65 and older with no limitations, a.k.a. the Cadillac Plan – that’s a big slice of the taxpayer pie that we would need to make up.
We realize Pickens Seniors for Change is looking at several types of exemption plans but we think Gooch is right that whatever referendum gets on the ballot as a straw poll will have overwhelming support, and because of this we need to be especially careful.
Like Gooch, we urge our elected officials, Pickens Seniors for Change members and other residents involved in the process to take time and formulate the best option for the entire county, which includes not only seniors and seniors on fixed incomes, but young families, business owners and everyone else.
Our commission board and school board, who have gone back and forth about who responsible for getting the ball rolling, need to belly up to the bar and work together because this issue is not going away anytime soon.
We know our elderly population can struggle if they are on fixed income and we want to support them, but this is a big change and we need to do it right the first time.