Homestead: Level exemptions are a sneaky tax increase

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sneaky taxes rankle citizens most. Refusing to increase homestead exemptions is a sneaky tax increase.

Credit Warren County Tax Collector Pat Simrall and state Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, and the entire Senate for trying to do something about it. But, from all appearances, the Mississippi House, deferring to the Mississippi Association of Supervisors and the Mississippi Municipal Association, will approve no increase this year.

The result will be counties and cities collecting more money from homeowners with no discussion, no vote, no action and perhaps even no intention to do so. Just one of those things, you know.

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A homestead exemption is both complicated and simple. As a matter of public policy, Mississippi, like most states, encourages people to own homes. Toward that end, a $7,500 credit is given on property tax valuations for owner-occupied residences. The credit is not available for vacation homes or rental or commercial properties. Taxes due from owners of those properties are based on the full valuation, which is a percentage of the fair market value that varies depending on how the property is used.

To make up for the break given to homeowners, which increases for retirees, the state agrees to reimburse counties the difference between the full tax and the reduced tax paid on homestead property.

The sneaky part is there is no adjustment for inflation in the exemption, and that hits seniors, who qualify for an added exemption, especially hard when reappraisals roll around. Every year, one-fourth of all parcels in Warren County are assigned new valuations. Regardless of what is happening in the real estate market — market prices rising or falling — valuations for taxes tend only to go in one direction: up.

So people who live in the same house pay more taxes — even when tax rates don’t increase — because their home is worth more and the exempted amount does not rise with the market price. Without an upward adjustment in the exemption, its benefit becomes smaller and smaller.

Simrall and other Mississippi tax collectors and Hopson and other members of the Senate tried to reset the equations so that the benefit, proportionately, remained steady. The House killed the bill.

In tight times for Vicksburg and Warren County, where supervisors also raised overall tax rates this year, and for Mississippi, where federal dollars are expected to bail out myriad programs, their efforts fell short. Supervisors and city officials take the position that their needs are greater than the needs of homeowners. And worse, they’re sneaky about it.