By Joel Hall
After digging up the results of a Nov. 2, 1999 referendum, the City of Riverdale has concluded that it is not legally required to provide free sanitation services to low-income seniors.
While seniors over the age of 65, making less than $12,000 annually, will continue to pay no property taxes, all residents will have to pay a $180 annual sanitation fee later this year.
"Based on the referendum, for everyone who does qualify, we do have to absorb their property taxes that they would normally have to pay," said Riverdale City Manager Iris Jessie on Friday. "The only way that [the referendum] could be taken back is that it would have to be rescinded by the voters. Nothing about the sanitation was on the ballot question."
For several years, the city has covered the cost of trash-collection services for seniors over the age of 62, with an income of less than $30,000, using funding from the state's Homeowner Tax Relief Grant (HTRG). In August, shortly after Gov. Sonny Perdue's decision not to fund the 2009 HTRG, the city stopped offering the complimentary service.
The decision upset several residents, prompting the city to coordinate with the Georgia Secretary of State to recover the results of the city's Nov. 2, 1999 referendum. Some residents and city council members believe the referendum promised free trash collection services to seniors over the age of 65, who qualified for a homestead exemption.
"My understanding of what that referendum did ... it was for the senior citizens of Riverdale," said Councilman Rick Scoggins, on Aug. 26. "All seniors, once you reach the age of 65 with an income of $12,000 or less ... you would be exempt from city property tax as well as sanitation for the duration. We have senior citizens that can barely feed themselves. I feel like it is only right that we get to the bottom of this."
In the Nov. 2, 1999 referendum, Riverdale voters were asked to vote on Georgia House Bill 838, Act No. 100. Approved by the governor on April 9, 1999, the bill allowed Riverdale residents - by way of referendum - to increase the household income ceiling of the city's homestead exemption from $6,000 to $12,000 per household.
The question on the Nov. 2, 1999 ballot reads, "Shall the Act be approved which provides for an Increase in the income ceiling applicable to the City of Riverdale Homestead Exemption for certain residents of that city who are 65 years of age or older?" The referendum passed, 506 voting in favor of the act, and 85 voting in opposition, according to city documents.
"It [the referendum] was only to extend the income gap of the people who qualify," for the homestead exemption, Jessie said. "We also checked internally to see if we could find any records or votes that the council had taken that had said they were going to allow seniors who qualified for [the homestead exemption] to be exempt from sanitation fees, and I couldn't find that either."
The decision of the city to discontinue free sanitation service to low-income seniors impacts 82 Riverdale seniors, who once qualified for the service. Jessie believes the confusion was a result of annual sanitation fees and property tax fees being sent to Riverdale residents on the same bill.
"If you don't get a tax bill, the assumption years ago [was] that you didn't have to pay for sanitation, since it is on the same bill," Jessie said. "It seems like it was more of a practice than anything else."
Jessie said that citizens received their tax bills in mid-September and would be receiving their sanitation bills later this year. "If you are older than 65 and you meet those income requirements, you don't have to pay property tax," she said.
Scoggins, who called for an investigation into the Nov. 2, 1999 referendum, could not be reached for comment on Friday.