By Justin Boron
Forest Park resident Maureen Scott understands the need to make her town more attractive to homeowners and home buyers. She said she just doesn't think shifting the city property tax burden from the citizens to the municipality's commercial and industrial tenants is the way to do it.
Scott said her grief stems from a proposed city property tax hike intended to offset lost revenue from expanded homestead exemptions, which will eliminate city property taxes for homes valued at $50,000 or less this year. The exemption will increase to $150,000 in the next two years.
"Changing the homestead exemption is not going to make people come here," Scott said. "Crime and other problems need to be corrected first."
An amendment to the city's homestead exemption passed in the Nov. 2 election. But Scott says many citizens - excited about the prospect of reduced property taxes - didn't realize what they were buying into when the voted for the additional exemption.
To compensate for the measure, the city announced its intention to increase property taxes for this year by .8 of a mill, putting the final millage rate at 5.593, according to a news release issued by the city.
The increase will primarily impact businesses and industry, unprotected by the new homestead exemption, said City Council member Wesley Lord.
But residents who do not apply for the homestead exemption by Dec. 15 also will pay extra taxes this year, opening up the possibility that the city's revenue from the adjustment will exceed the amount needed to offset the expanded exemptions.
About 863 of the 4,800 eligible homes had filed for the exemption as of midday Tuesday.
Lord, who spearheaded the homestead exemption amendment, said the plan had been in the works for seven years. He said he hopes the tax incentive will attract more permanent residents to the city and replace much of the city's rental property, which takes up about 45 percent of the residential community.
"We're trying to encourage families to move here because they make better neighbors," he said.
But along with Scott, City Council member Debbie Youmans is hesitant about the plan.
She said she is skeptical about whether the homestead exemption will actually bring in more residents and worries that it may drive business out of the city.
"How much is it going to be shifted to the businesses and the landlords?" she asked.
Youmans also said the tax increase may conflict with city's revitalization plans for commercial areas like the Farmer's Market.