All of the points below are very basic, but they are essential to an educated discussion regarding the key issues of the day in this county. While they may seem obvious to longtime followers of county/school news, recent questions and comments show that a little refresher is needed.
1. The county and school system operate completely separately. The county commissioners have no power whatsoever to tell the school board how to operate or budget or spend. Both tax bills show up on the same paper and are handled by the county tax commissioner but each body sets its own tax rate.
2. The school superintendent is hired by the elected school board. The superintendent post was formerly an elected office but, by state law, has been a hired administrative position for well over a decade.
3. Pickens County does have a school tax exemption. In Pickens County there is a full exemption of school taxes for people over 62 years old who make less than $25,000 a year. About 550 property owners take advantage of it.
4. School taxes make up the largest portion of your total tax bill. School taxes have decreased the past two years by small amounts. The student population has been flat in recent years, not growing much over the past five years. This year the school system has budgeted to collect $21.4 million in local property taxes as part of their $45 million total budget. The county will collect $10.9 million in local property tax as part of their total $25.5 million budget.
5. Pickens schools rank fairly high statewide, usually beating other north Georgia counties but not posting scores as high as the metro area schools.
6. Renters do not receive property tax bills but their landlords do and you can be sure that rental properties are taxed, just like residential. An argument put forward a few times that parents living in rental housing are getting a free ride for their children’s education is ludicrous.
7. There is no avoiding the property tax bill. Even if a property goes into foreclosure or an owner abandons it, the bank or next owner will find past-due tax bills waiting on them. Sooner or later the bill will be paid by someone.
8. The tax base is the total value of all taxable property in the county. It also includes equipment, some inventory, and personal items like boats. But the vast majority comes from residential housing. The total tax digest value last year was $1.388 billion. When this rises, the county and schools receive more revenue with the same tax (millage) rate. So some years they cut the tax rate but still get more revenue.
9. Gated communities pull big weight in the digest. In Pickens County, the gated communities of Bent Tree (9 percent) and Big Canoe (12-13 percent) make up more than 20 percent of the tax base. The city of Jasper, including all the commercial properties, accounts for 11-12 percent of the tax base.
10. The process of how to increase/change the current exemption is convoluted. At this stage the Pickens GOP will put a straw poll on their May primary ballot. The local democrats chose to not include a straw poll. The results of this poll are not binding. They give the county, school and state officials a starting point in developing a new exemption that can be put to a county-wide vote later.