Homestead Exemption Debated

Many senior citizens in Harrison County are upset with their tax bills.

The required reappraisal process means many of the elderly are facing significant tax hikes. That's why a growing number of local governments are asking state lawmakers to raise the homestead exemption.

The Gulfport City Council is the latest to recommend such a change to state lawmakers.

Raising the homestead exemption would provide tax relief. But there's real doubt such a plan would be approved by the legislature this year.

Although the idea of lessening the tax burden for seniors sounds good, the county's tax assessor says there's no statewide push for such relief.

"There have only been 14 counties out of 82 counties that have gone through the re-appraisal this year," Harrison county Tax Assessor Tal Flurry says.  "The others will go through this by 2002, and you'll probably see a bigger push as more of the counties feel an impact from the increase in values."

85-year-old Hollis Walters feels that impact now. He built a home off Courthouse Road back in 1979 for $36,000. This year's bill saw his property taxes jump from $89 to nearly $450.

"If they hadn't went up so much at one time, it wouldn't have been so bad on the senior citizens," Walters says.  "You take a lot of senior citizens, and they're not able to pay taxes on their homes. And some are just living off Social Security. They're not able to pay that kind of tax."

Gulfport city councilman Richard Rose is pushing for change. He wants to give local governments a range for setting homestead exemptions.

"Communities with a great deal of growth, like those we've had on the coast can afford to give a greater exemption than those that are more rural counties," Rose said.

But Flurry says such change may have to wait.

"Until more of the counties are impacted with the increase in property values, you're not going to see a statewide push to change homestead exemptions."

That means taxpayers will have to find the means of coping with increased property values and higher tax bills.