Opp landowner feels tax plan is unfair

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 3, 2003

With less than a week away from referendum day, some local farmers are concerned with the state property taxes proposed in Amendment 1.

The proposed increase would target a single group of people, and those people are big land owners in the state, said Dr. Charles Burgess, an Opp dentist.

"I wasn't opposed to the tax package until the governor came out and told the timber owners and farmers they should pay their fair share," Burgess said. "They are already paying their fair share."

Burgess would be included in the landowners who would be "unfairly" taxed if Amendment 1 passes Sept. 9, he said. He owns some timberland in the state, and is a member of a timber organization.

"The tax on property would affect every person who owns timber and agricultural land," he said. "Now we pay $1.50 per acre, and, if the tax passes that amount would increase to $3.85 per acre. Every large landowner would be paying almost a little over double on property taxes for rural property owners."

Over four years, the state proportion of the tax would increase more than 600 percent for some, according to Burgess.

"In a hypothetical situation, a person with 1,000 acres of land would have a tax increase of $380.25 to $2,499 over four years," he said. " That's using their (proponents') figures. By lowering the millage from 6.5 mills to 3.5 mills (1 mill=0.1 percent), the assessment value will go up from 10 percent to 100 percent."

There would be a write-off, or an exemption for farmers who own 200 or less acres, but Burgess said even it would hurt the farmers more than it helps.

"If you read the fine print, farmers get one of three write-offs," he said. "They can raise their homestead exemption from $30,000 to $50,000, take the 200 acres, but if the person lives in the city, he doesn't get the write-off.

"(Farmers) can't live off 200 acres of land," Burgess said. "There is no farmer in the state who could make a living off that little amount of land. They have a choice of doing one of two things: they can rent more land or they can buy more land. The tax burden from the package would be passed onto the farmers. The farmer has to take what the market will pay. The market price affects the farmer, and because the farmers' profit margin is so thin, they have to farm off 600 to 1,000 acres of land in order to provide a living. Forty or 50 years ago, a farmer could live off 80 acres of land, but not by today's market."

Burgess claimed the proponents message about farmers still paying one of the lowest property taxes in the nation is wrong.

"That is a misstatement that has been made," he said. "I didn't decide to get involved in this debate until I kept hearing how much higher taxes are in Florida than they are here. Two weeks ago I called the tax assessor in Walton County and asked how they tax property, and she told me the millage rate was 12.2929 mills for the county. I drove down to Crestview and talked to the tax assessor of Okaloosa County. What I'm trying to tell people is don't take my word for it, but I don't mind one to verify what I'm saying."

Despite Burgess's hypothetical situation of a farmer owning 1,000 acres, the average farm size in Alabama is 187 acres. Only about 2 percent of the farmers in the state and less than an estimated 2,000 timber owners would see large increases in property taxes, because they own 2,000 or more acres.

The Tax Accountability Coalition, the organization who has raised the most money in opposition to Governor Bob Riley's proposal, has claimed unearmarked money would lead to a "slush" fund, but Burgess is not opposed to unearmarked funds in the state.

"A lot of people opposed say there is no guarantee to money going towards education," he said. "I think it is wise for us to unearmark funds for the state to use funds where they are needed. The problem is who says where that money goes.

"If we had legislation that is honest, unearmarking of funds would be a truly great thing for the state. I know the governor has passed a bill against 'pass-through pork,' but the legislature would find a loophole in it."

It is possible the legislature would find a loophole with any new law passed, Burgess added.

Burgess also said something for the state need to be done, but targeting one group isn't the answer.

"I'm not anti-education, and, as a matter-of-fact, I think we need to do everything we can to help our educational system," he said. "I'm just concerned that special interest have gotten hold of the legislation. I don't mind paying a little more income tax, and I don't mind paying a little more property tax. What I do mind is someone telling me we need to pay our fair share."

Burgess admitted that he would agree on the package for the most part if the property taxes were changed.