One of Mayor Denson’s signature campaign issues was the property tax freeze on homeowners who are age 65 or older. Though there have been mutterings of disapproval among some commissioners, in a recent profile by the Banner-Herald, Denson declares that she would push the proposal this year.
It is an unjust and distracting policy proposal for the Athens-Clarke County. First off, it would squeeze the (already small) property tax base onto young people and businesses. No matter how much the Mayor may talk about limiting the budget – much of our county costs are fixed an subject to inflation, notably healthcare and equipment costs. A spending squeeze is temporary, but a property tax cap is forever – ask California. And since we are a unit of the State of Georgia with limited autonomy, there is not a lot of scope to diversify our taxes, so we are left with property tax increases on young people and business.
Now, the over-65 property tax cap for the Board of Education (that has been implemented) had an additional argument that said that over-65s benefit less from the school system than young people and shouldn’t have to pay for ever-increasing costs (I disagree, but grant it for now). In contrast, the general fund property tax supports services such as Fire, Police, Courts, Streets, Parks, etc, etc that benefit everyone regardless of age.
At this point, proponents (such as Nancy Denson) like to tell the story of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods that trap over-65s who live on a fixed income, thus forcing them to move from a house that they have owned since whenever. The problem here is that this story is exactly that – a story. It’s anecdotal and sentimental. Anyone can come up with a countervailing sob story, such as a young family who cannot move into, or has to move from a beloved starter home, or even a 60-year old who is forced out of a home where he has lived for 40 years (contrasted with the possibility of a 65 year old buying a retirement mansion and paying capped property taxes). The point is that the issues that might justify the policy (gentrification, affordable housing, higher taxes) are not limited to age – and the argument is anecdotal and arbitrary.
Which leads to my next point that the proposal is a red herring. The underlying issues are policies where the Commission can make a difference. Zoning policy, affordable housing, slimmed down efficient budget, etc are all areas where the Commission can effect just and equitable change without resorting to age-based stereotype or discrimination.
These issues bring up one last pint that I believe is very germane. That is, the proposal doesn’t necessarily help those for whom is claims to help. Though I have no data or statistics, I can’t help but wondering that the benefits of an over-65 tax cap would simply flow to the wealthiest Athenians (in Five Points, Jefferson Rd, etc) while leaving city services (which protect and serve their more valuable property) dependent upon those who simply haven’t had time to accrue a lifetime’s worth of capital – not to mention the city services that help the poorer citizens whose fate is ironically used to justify the policy (home-owning widows, etc).
If the Commission is going cut property taxes, then it should cut them for all or none of the citizens of Athens-Clarke. Until then, it should focus on issues such as an efficient budget, affordable housing, zoning, and economic development that benefit all regardless of age.