Ron Cross is well off. The Columbia County Commission chairman retired as president of a commercial construction company, and spends most days running the county and playing with his grandson. He could probably find $500 in change in the seats of his big collection of old muscle cars.
So when I heard Cross was receiving dual homestead exemptions that saved him about $500 in property taxes for the past two years, my first reaction was "That's chump change for him." The second was, "How do I get that deal?"
Alas, Cross's high profile will ensure that the rest of us can't get away with dual exemptions in the future. And that profile will make sure the embarrassment costs far more than $500.
When an anonymous tipster and a local real-estate agent noted the dual exemptions, Cross replied that he thought the exemption on his former home in West Lake had automatically ended when his wife filed a new one for their home in Jones Crossing.
It should have. That $308,913 home in West Lake is for sale. The downsized Jones Crossing home is valued at $253,610, and when Jan Cross filed the paperwork for the Jones Crossing home, the tax office should have removed the $2,000 exemption on the West Lake property.
An applicant for a homestead exemption signs this declaration: "I understand that by filing this application I have given up all other homestead exemptions for state and county tax purposes."
When the application is filed, the tax office should check if the applicant already has a homestead exemption listed, and then remove the old exemption. Tax Commissioner Kay Allen's office didn't do that. As a result, Cross's tax bills for the West Lake home in 2005-06 were lower than they should have been.
The homestead exemption is available for a primary residence. Homes are taxed on 40 percent of assessed value, and the homestead exemption is deducted from that amount before taxes are computed. That means the Cross's former home was taxed on a value of $121,565; their current, smaller home was taxed on a value of $92,244.
The savings were $260 this year, a little less last year. The embarrassment is much more expensive.
"I will accept some of the blame for it," Allen said. "When folks come in and apply, we try to ask them if they are moving from another place in Columbia County. ... Probably, we did not ask."
Well, gee whiz: Welcome to the computer age. The system shouldn't have to rely on an employee asking a filer to self-incriminate. Amazingly, there is nothing in the tax office's system to raise a flag if a person already has an exemption and applies for a new one. Instead, Allen said most of the questions they ask are designed to determine if the person and property are eligible for the exemption - not to find out if the person already has an exemption.
"We are trying to put in place a mechanism where we can do what we call homestead exemption audits to be sure that people are only receiving one," Allen said.
It's past due. Think about it: A high-profile man like Cross (albeit through his wife) held two exemptions for two years without it raising alarms at the tax office; how many other people are doing the same thing and not getting caught? The tax office doesn't know!
Since the error was found, Allen revised the Cross's current tax bills, and is assessing additional payment for 2005.
Meanwhile, the initial error is not his fault, and it is not a crime. Still, Cross ought to be embarrassed for allowing two tax-billing cycles to pass with the dual exemptions.
It might be chump change to him, but we're all chumps if we let it slide.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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