Former Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox speaks in favor of a referendum on lowering the city's homestead exemption during a legislative town hall meeting on Monday.
JONESBORO Former Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox and state Rep. Demetrius Douglas (D-Stockbridge) never began shouting but the tension was thick between the two men Monday night.
The point of contention was a question of whether a referendum to lower Jonesboro’s homestead exemption from $60,000 to $10,000 constituted a new tax on the city’s residents. A piece of legislation designed to authorized the referendum has stalled in the state House of Representatives because of reservations held by the Clayton County Legislative Delegation and a House committee.
“That just allows the people the opportunity to vote whether or not they want to raise their taxes,” Maddox said. “The bill itself does not raise any taxes, so I guess you’ll just go ahead and sign onto that, right?”
“At the end of the day, what does it do?” Douglas said.
“It will give the people the opportunity to vote,” said Maddox as he began to raise his voice.
“No, that’s not what I asked,” said Douglas as he began to lean over the railing separating him from Maddox.
The exchange between Douglas and Maddox was just a sample of the heated emotions which emerged during a legislative town hall meeting held to determine whether Jonesboro residents wanted the referendum to take place.
Many of the 48 residents who attended the forum became increasingly restless as they called on legislators to let them hold the referendum.
“This was the intent of the city council, to give the citizens the right to vote on the homestead exemption,” said City Councilman Randy Segner.
Some attendees said they were against lowering the exemption but no one spoke out against letting residents decide the matter through a referendum. Many of them vehemently expressed their desire to hold the vote.
At times, residents questioned whether some members of their legislative delegation were infringing on their voting rights.
“Why would any of our representatives deny their fellow residents in Jonesboro the right to vote about anything?” Jonesboro resident Karen Sullivan said. “Denying a right is just not what they’re supposed to do.”
Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Jonesboro) said he didn’t think any of his colleagues in the delegation were trying to deny voting rights to Jonesboro residents. Glanton and Douglas represent the city of Jonesboro in the General Assembly, with most of the city located in Glanton’s district.
Glanton also authored the legislation to let the referendum take place, but only Reps. Valencia Stovall (D-Ellenwood) and Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta) had signed on as co-sponsors as of Monday.
“When a representative — when a member who is elected to go down there and make decisions — has a question about something he or she has to make a decision about, then we have to give it its due diligence and we have to go through the process,” Glanton said.
“This is not something against Jonesboro. This is not something where the delegation as a whole is saying we don’t support Jonesboro and what the people in Jonesboro want to do.”
Rep. Sandra Scott (D-Rex) promised all of the representatives in the Clayton County Legislative Delegation would sign the homestead exemption referendum bill on Tuesday in light of the response they received at the forum.
However, Douglas was non-committal at the end of the town hall meeting in what could have seemed like a reversal from a statement he made at the beginning of the event.
“If you’re for it, then I’m for it. If you’re not, then let your voice be heard tonight,” Douglas said early on.
“I’ve heard the heart of the people, so let me go back to my office and make a decision and we can all move forward,” he said late in the meeting.
One of the big questions of the night was why the delegation crafted legislation that would allow residents to vote on incrementally lowering the exemption $10,000 per year for years. The city asked for legislation authorizing a referendum to lower the exemption at one time.
The delegation may not have had any choice about how the exemption would be lowered, though.
“That was something that the chairman of the Intragovernmental Coordination Committee suggested strongly,” Glanton said.
Scott pointed out the all-Democrat Clayton County Legislative Delegation has to work with a state House where Republicans hold a super majority.
Therefore, all the cards rest in the hands of the House Republican Caucus.
“As you know with Republicans, there is no way — no way — they want it to be said that they wanted to raise taxes, so they look at this as raising taxes,” Scott said. “So, this is the route we must go in order to get this legislation passed.
“This is the way the committee said they would work with us to get it through, and these are the grounds that they put on the table so we have accepted the grounds that they have put on the table.”
Current Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day and Mayor Pro Tem Pat Sebo said the deal was a compromise they had to make to in order to move it forward in the General Assembly.
“Ultimately, it is the decision of the people,” Day said. “Whatever they decide. Whatever you decide. Whatever I decide — I’m a citizen, too — then we will go with it just like we did with our liquor referendum [in 2011] and all of the other referendums we’ve had in the city.
“We want our citizens to have that voice.”