With the county’s millage rate going up for the first time since 2008, Stephens County Tax Assessor Christen Collier is trying to answer some questions about the county’s property situation and why Stephens County is different than neighboring counties with lower millage rates.
Collier made a presentation to Stephens County Commissioners at their meeting Tuesday.
He pointed out that right off the bat, Stephens County has less property to tax than nearby counties like Franklin, Banks, and Habersham.
Collier said not only is Stephens County a small county, but adds that a large amount of that property is exempt from property tax because it is owned by a government or some other tax exempt entity.
“37.5 percent of this county is exempt from property tax,” said Collier. “You add the roads in, we are at 40 percent. 60 percent of our property is taxable, unlike Banks County and unlike Franklin County. Habersham County is bigger. We are the smallest county in northeast Georgia, 184 square miles, so we are starting off behind the eight-ball.”
Then, Collier said that the real property value in Stephens County that can be taxes has declined over the last 5 years by $175 million, meaning the county has collected less revenue each year as the millage rate has stayed the same.
He said state laws contribute significantly to how those property values are set.
For example, Collier said one state law requires his office to set the value of a sold property at the value most beneficial to the buyer.
“If you pay $75,000 for a $100,000 house, it (the value) is set at $75,000,” said Collier. “If you pay $125,000 for a $100,000 house, I can’t fix that,” said Collier.
Once all the values are set, Collier said the county must then take into account all of the available exemptions.
Those include a conservation use exemption that can give what Collier called “old family farms” of 10 acres or more a 30 to 90 percent discount on property taxes, and the homestead exemption.
In particular, Collier said Stephens County’s senior homestead exemption, approved by county voters, provides more of a break than the same exemption in other counties because of what the county voters approved.
“You have a senior homestead exemption in Banks County, you are going to save $450 off your tax bill,” said Collier. “In Franklin County, you are going to save $250 off your tax bill. In Stephens County, 65 years and over, you are going to save $1,040. That does not go away. It is called burden shift. It is shifting the burden.”
Collier said that burden shift falls onto those who do not have the same exemptions since the county has no other way to replace that revenue.
He used an example of a $100 meal to demonstrate that.
If split fairly, 10 people pay $10 each for that $100 meal.
However, Collier said exemptions mean some pay more and some pay less.
“Three people are going to be exempted from paying the meal,” said Collier. “Two people are going to get a 50 percent reduction, so those two people are going to pay $5. Three people are going to get a 25 percent reduction. They pay $7.50 each.”
That means, he said the last $75 total must be split among three people which means three people pay $25 for the $10 meal, while three people pay nothing.
Collier said he is not against the exemptions, but wants to point out the effects of those exemptions on property taxes.