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Reports: Few taking advantage of tax exemptions

ALBANY -- When state budget cuts prompted legislators to pull a popular and widely used homestead grant last year, it left many property owners seeing red.

That grant -- or more accurately, the loss of that grant -- caused many property tax bills to jump by more than $300.

But just as the homestead grant -- when funded -- provided some relief to property tax payers, so do other exemptions that aren't nearly as widely used, according to tax officials.

Dougherty County Tax Director Denver Hooten says that there are a dedicated number of people who take advantage of these exemptions, but that it is likely that many more don't know or don't understand that other exemptions exist.

In Dougherty County in 2009, 11,468 people received the standard homestead exemption, which allows for any home that is used as the primary residence by the owner to receive $2,000 in exemptions from state, county and school taxes. But that number is almost four times the number of people who received the state's other property tax exemptions combined.

"We always encourage everybody to review their tax bill to ensure they got the exemptions they believe they deserved and to check in with our office here to make sure they are getting all of the exemptions they are eligible for," Hooten said.

Most of the exemptions are geared towards senior citizens who often have fixed incomes and struggle with fluctuating costs of living.

As an example, Hooten points to three exemptions focused solely on people aged 62 or older.

The first exemption applies to everyone that has reached age 65 without regard to their income. This exemption spares those folks the burden of paying their state ad valorem taxes. The tradeoff is that the exemption really isn't significant -- on average about two dollars of every tax bill would apply -- but it's money saved nonetheless.

Currently 803 property owners take advantage of this exemption.

Additionally, those 65 and older can claim a $4,000 exemption from state and county ad valorem taxes if they meet certain income requirements. According to the Georgia Department of Revenue, a property owner can claim the exemption if household income doesn't exceed $10,000 for the previous year, with income from retirement sources, pensions, and disability income excluded and a cap for Social Security benefits set for 2010 at $55,742.

In 2009, 2,732 people received that exemption.

If a property tax owner is 62 or older, he or she can claim up to a $10,000 exemption on school taxes if the income of that household doesn't exceed $10,000. The same rules apply in terms of exempted income as the the other income-capped item above.

Only 186 people received that exemption last year.

Hooten said that there is an exemption that allows most local people who qualify to avoid paying property taxes altogether.

That exemption is for disabled veterans or the surviving, unremarried spouse or minor child of a disabled veteran, so long as they continue to occupy the home as a residence. That exemption, $50,000 for county, state, municipal and school purposes, would cover all or most of the tax bill for those who live in a home assessed at $110,000 or less.

Hooten said that 154 people received that exemption last year.

There is a separate exemption that is similar but applies to the surviving spouse of a U.S. military service member who was killed in an armed conflict. The spouse is entitled to a $50,000 exemption on all property taxes as long as the spouse does not remarry. A total of 16 people claimed that exemption in Dougherty County last year.

Finally, there is an exemption for the surviving spouse of a peace officer or firefighter killed in the line of duty. That exemption is for the full value of the homestead for as long as the spouse occupies the residence as a homestead. No one in Dougherty County received that exemption last year.

Hooten said that while these exemptions are open to everyone who qualifies, the only way to receive the benefit is to apply.

"While it may sound like you don't qualify or that it doesn't apply, you may fit in and just don't know it because sometimes the rules can be very complex," Hooten said. "It never hurts to ask and, in this case, it could save you quite a bit of money."