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Homestead exemption passes by landslide

WINDER - Barrow voters overwhelmingly agreed Tuesday that low-income seniors should get a break on their property taxes.

According to unofficial vote totals, 86.71 percent of voters approved a homestead exemption that will give relief to some seniors paying county ad valorem taxes for education.

Barrow County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison said he was glad to hear that the measure passed by such a wide margin. Voters favored it 9,683 to 1,484.

"I think it's worthwhile, I certainly do," he said. "We're looking after the interests of the ones who need it most."

Garrison said most people voting for the homestead exemption did not know whether it would affect them personally, but hoped the break would pave the way for more tax relief in the future.

Ron Saunders, superintendent of the Barrow County Schools, estimated that the exemption could cost the school district $800,000. He said the school system would have to make adjustments within its budget, but hoped more sales tax revenue would help offset the lost funds.

"I'm curious to see if the growth will make up the difference," Saunders said. "We'll know after the first couple years whether it will work or not."

The referendum was a point of contention before it was passed by the General Assembly in March.

County commissioners first passed it in 2005, calling for seniors over 65 who made less than $20,000 each year to be exempted up to $80,000 of the appraised value of their homes. Members of the Board of Education disliked that bill and contended that they were not included in the planning process before a new version was written.

The homestead exemption will be phased in over four years and give a break of up to $60,000 for property taxes earmarked for schools to seniors 62 years old or older who have an income of less than 2.5 times the federal poverty rate. That would make a home worth $200,000 or less completely exempt from the schools' ad valorem tax at the end of the phase-in. The 2006 poverty rate is $9,800.