TIFTON -- Funding education is now on the backs of property owners and they, state legislators and educators generally agree that ever-increasing tax bills are putting a hardship on landowners. The public is invited to attend an information-gathering session at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Rural Development Center. The information gathered there could influence legislation that will affect everyone.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, is hosting the event. Penny Houston, D-Nashville, who serves on the House of Representatives Appropriations and Education committees, said in a column that ran in Tuesday's edition of the Gazette that a nationwide Gallup poll conducted in the spring found that 42 percent of those surveyed declared local property taxes to be the least fair. She is a proponent of an education sales tax to help fund public education.

"Since I took office almost nine years ago, people have complained about property taxes and mostly older people on a fixed income," Houston said Tuesday. "When their taxes go up, it is tough. I think we have to find another way to fund education."

Local property taxes in the state's counties pay the local supplement to fund education. The Tift County Board of Education recently raised its millage rate by 3 mills to support expected 2005-2006 expenditures of $46.9 million. A Tift County taxpayer who owns property valued at $100,000 can expect a $120 increase in taxes. If the same person qualifies for the homestead exemption, the increase will be $90.

"We have to look at how other states fund education," Houston said.

Houston said that times have changed and it used to be that people who owned property had the money.

"Now, some of these people who live in urban areas where property values have gone up and they have lived there all their lives are looking at having to sell their homes," Houston said.

Houston said Keen had told her similar stories of how people he knows on the coast have had to sell property because they couldn't afford rising tax bills. The proposal Houston advocates would eliminate the ability of local school boards to levy taxes on any real or personal property.

Houston said there have been some misconceptions among educators about how an education sales tax would be distributed. She said talks are that a formula would be developed to distribute the sales taxes to counties equitably and that she believed that school systems in rural areas would "get a pretty big chunk" of those taxes to fund their schools even though they might not have the sales tax revenue of larger more economically developed counties.

Dr. John Harper, superintendent of Tift County Schools, said Tuesday that he had been contacted by the Georgia School Board Association concerning the meeting and the proposed legislation and that Patrick Atwater, assistant superintendent, will serve as a spokesman at Thursday's meeting. Harper, who pointed out that he is himself a landowner, agreed that something needs to be done about the way education is funded and doesn't believe the tax burden is equally distributed, but he is leery of the state taking local control away from county school boards.

"I always get concerned when all the dollar control comes out of Atlanta," Harper said.

Harper said Gov. Sonny Perdue established another group of people to sit on a committee and study the issue of school funding. That committee, he said, will make recommendations to Perdue.

Local school board members have contended that cuts in state funding, including about $5 million in austerity cuts during the past three years, and increased unfunded mandates from the state, demanded the local property tax increase. Board members have asked the public to call state legislators and support an amendment that would allow local school systems to use Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) dollars for more than new construction.

"We are all bright people and we should be able to come up with an equitable solution," Harper said.

To contact city editor Angie Thompson, call 382-4321.

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