VR: Senior exemption legislation on fast track

J. Collins

A bill to provide senior citizens a tax break is moving rapidly through the Georgia Legislature, but the same cannot be said for a move to increase revenues to the city by raising the hotel-motel tax.

On Tuesday, the state Senate read and referred HB 272, which would provide an $8,000 homestead exemption to all city taxpayers if they are age 65 or over. The state House passed the same measure on Feb. 10, only three days after the bill had been introduced.

It is not known when the Senate will vote on the measure, which, if passed, would then be sent to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

If approved, a referendum will be placed on the ballot for the March 21 election. Voters will then decide if the exemption should be available to seniors in time for the April deadline set by tax officials in both Carroll and Douglas counties for taxpayers to claim such exemptions.

The senior exemption was one of two items sent to the state Legislature this year by the Villa Rica City Council. The second was a proposal to raise the hotel-motel tax in the city to 8 percent from its current level of 5 percent. The new levy is expected to increase the amount of money available for tourism promotion in the city, without city taxpayers bearing that burden.

But an online check on the status of legislation pending in the General Assembly shows no record of such a bill being introduced in either chamber.

City Attorney David Mecklin said Tuesday that his understanding from state Rep. J. Collins is that the hotel-motel bill might not be introduced until next year, and that the priority has been on getting the senior exemption passed in time for the referendum.

Collins, former mayor of the city, represents House District 68 and is a member of Carroll County's legislative delegation. It is that group of lawmakers that presents bills that are of local interest to the Legislature on behalf of the county's communities.

The senior exemption bill was introduced to replace an ordinance passed 12 years ago, which Mecklin last year declared "void" because it was being applied differently in Carroll and Douglas counties, which Villa Rica straddles. Mecklin also said that the ordinance was unconstitutional, since the state constitution requires a referendum to approve such homestead exemptions.

On Jan. 10, the City Council approved the hotel-motel tax proposal, allowing it to be sent to the county's delegation. The increase was designed to match a similar increase requested last year by the Carrollton City Council, but an online check shows that no such bill has been introduced on behalf of either Villa Rica or Carrollton.

Under the law permitting the tax on guests at hotels and motels, the revenues raised must be spent on items earmarked in the city's budget as "tourism product development," meaning renovation or new construction of tourism attractions.

But an additional benefit to raising the tax on hotel guests is that doing so has an offsetting effect on the tax burden felt by county property owners.

At a council work session on Jan. 5, Christopher Pike, director of Downtown Development and Tourism, said the 8 percent tax -- which could amount to $1.13 million over the next five years -- would increase the amount of money going into the city's general fund, thus benefiting local taxpayers.

Pike said that tourists to Carroll County generated $143 million during 2014, which translates into $4.1 million in local tax revenues. That means, Pike said, each of the 40,000 households in the county received $210 in tax relief that year.

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