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Tax-freeze program complex, officials say

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

rclawrence@bellsouth.net

From Roane, to an overnight stay in Knox, and up to Hawkins.

That was part of Tom Fleming’s travel itinerary last week.

Fleming, the assistant to the comptroller for assessments, has been making his rounds to Tennessee counties to help locals understand the property tax freeze program.

He gave a presentation to some Roane County commissioners at the courthouse Wednesday night.

“It’s a complicated program,” Fleming said.

The state General Assembly passed the Property Tax Freeze Act last year. It gives local governments the power to freeze property taxes for seniors who meet a certain criteria.

Only a maximum of five acres of residential property is eligible to be frozen. To qualify, seniors must be at least 65, own and use the residence as their primary residence and meet a certain income limit.

The income limit, which will be adjusted annually, is $27,130 for Roane County.

Fleming said the limit for Roane County will rise to $28,030 next year.

As of Jan. 25, Roane was one of only nine counties to adopt the program, according to the state comptroller.

Manchester and Memphis are the only two cities to adopt the program so far.

“Your county or city has to adopt the program for you to even have a chance to qualify,” Fleming said. “That’s key. A lot of the citizens think they’re automatically on the program because they’re 65 years of age.”

One topic Fleming didn’t discuss during his presentation was whether the county needs to hire additional employees for the offices most affected by the program.

“That’s not what I’m here for,” Fleming said. “I’m just here to explain the program. We don’t get into whether or not they need additional employees. That will have to be their decision.”

Roane County Trustee Wilma Eblen is responsible for administering the program. Her office receives and processes the applications.

The trustee must also determine the eligibility of applicants by verifying age, ownership and income.

Eblen said the program has increased the workload on her office tremendously, but it’s too early to tell if she will need additional staff.

She noted there’s a lot more to the program than simply handling paperwork. A lot of time is spent explaining the program.

“It depends on the individual we’re working with,” Eblen said. “It may take us 10 minutes with one and 30 minutes with another.”

Property Assessor Teresa Kirkham has said her office is in need of additional staff because of the tax freeze program.

Some of her responsibilities include determining the base assessment subject to freeze and the amount of land subject to freeze for the principal residence.

Kirkham also attended Fleming’s presentation. She said she wasn’t surprised Fleming didn’t discuss the issue of additional staff.

“He would never make a recommendation whether I needed another employee or not, and I wasn’t expecting him to do that,” Kirkham said. “He was there for information only.”

The deadline to apply for the tax freeze program is April 7 statewide.