JONESBORO Businesses will continue shouldering Jonesboro’s tax burden for the foreseeable future because residents aren’t allowed to vote on lowering their homestead exemption, according to the city’s mayor.
City officials are trying to figure out what’s next for their residents and business owners after legislation to allow a referendum on lowering the exemption from $60,000 to $10,000 failed to get out of the state Senate last week. The legislation, known as House Bill 330, will have to wait until January before it can be considered again because the 2013 legislative term is over.
A grim-faced Mayor Joy Day said she was not surprised by the turn of events after several members of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation expressed reluctance to support the referendum bill.
“I guess it says our delegation doesn’t think that our people should be able to vote on their destiny,” she said. “The bill was not to raise or lower taxes. It was simply to let the people vote in the city of Jonesboro and guide their own destiny.”
The referendum bill was the only one of three long-delayed pieces of local legislation from Clayton County that stalled in the General Assembly this year. Legislation dealing with Forest Park’s City Charter and ethics for the Clayton County Board of Education sailed through the legislature.
The City Council first sent a formal request asking for legislation calling for the referendum in late 2010 but the delegation did little, if anything, in 2011 or 2012 to act on the request.
Vote not in ‘best interest’ of citizens?
The key stumbling block throughout this year’s legislative term was opposition from within the Clayton County Legislative Delegation. For awhile, it only had the support of three representatives in the delegation, including bill author Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro).
Initially, Rep. Demetrius Douglas (D-Stockbridge) wouldn’t support the bill and his support was needed because he represented part of the city and because House rules required four of the delegation’s seven representatives sign on to the legislation. He later gave his support after he was confronted by angry citizens during a town hall meeting at the Jonesboro Police Department headquarters.
In the later days of the legislative term, the crucial piece of missing support was Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro), the delegation’s chairwoman.
In a March 28 letter, Davenport told Day she reviewed unspecified information about property taxes in the city and across the county, and consulted with other members of the delegation and “many constituents in the local community,” before she decided not to support the bill.
In the letter, Davenport repeated a belief expressed previously by other delegation members that passage of the bill essentially equated to them voting to raise taxes on Jonesboro’s residents.
“I do not believe that it is in the best interest of the citizens of the City of Jonesboro to lower [the] ad valorem property tax homestead exemption, a measure which would raise property taxes for our citizens,” Davenport wrote. “Therefore, I cannot vote for HB330 at this time.”
Businesses shoulder burden of tax
If voters approved a lower exemption, they would essentially be voting to join the businesses in a tax that already exists.
The 1.5-mill tax was controversial with business owners when it was introduced in late 2010 because home values had fallen to the point where few residents, if any, would pay the tax. Commercial property values, on the other hand, were high enough that business owners would have to pay.
Jonesboro Finance Officer Sandra Meyer said approximately less than 1 percent of residents have properties valued high enough to pay the tax.
“It’s probably only a handful of people,” she said.
Swint’s Feed and Garden Supply co-owner Willis Swint said his 80-year-old family-run business isn’t adversely affected by the imposition of a tax, but he would like to see residents help pay for city services, such as police protection.
“Right now, it’s all on the business community,” Swint said. “It would be good if everybody could make some contribution to pay for city services.”
Without a referendum, Day said the city will likely have to find a way to keep the burden as light on businesses as possible.
“That’s something that’s going to take a lot of thinking,” she said. “I guess what we’ll try to do is keep our millage rate as low as we can so we won’t overtax our businesses.”
It’s not clear if Jonesboro will pursue a revised version of the bill with a 2014 or 2015 election date. House Bill 330 set the referendum date to be the same day as the municipal election in November.
The date therefore would have to be changed, forcing Jonesboro to either pay for a special election in 2014 or wait until the next regularly scheduled city election in November 2015.
Glanton deferred comment about the situation to Davenport, who told Day in her letter that the delegation will revisit the bill in 2014 — if the economy improves and county property taxes do not increase.
However, Day wasn’t sure if city leaders were up to continuing the fight anymore.
“That would be up to the council — I don’t know if it would do any good to re-submit it,” Day said. “It might but, first, you have to have people willing to listen to you.”