Flaw with program that helps elderly homeowners likely a Fulton County problem, expert says

ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News viewers contributed thousands of dollars within minutes of our story airing, to help an Atlanta woman keep her home.

But the larger problem we uncovered in our investigation remains.

Thousands of other elderly homeowners could find themselves in this same situation.

“I just thank god for sending all of these angels,” Ethel Callaway said.

In the 48 hours since we first shared her story, her life was forever changed.

For months there have been sleepless nights, even cutting back on groceries as she tried to deal with a massive back tax bill and the potential loss to foreclosure of her southwest Atlanta home.

But Channel 2 Action News viewers stepped up and donated more than $17,000 to a GoFundMe fundraising site. It is enough money to clear her tax debt and provide for much needed repairs.

“I’m excited, truly blessed and I feeling so very happy. And I’m just floating along now,” Callaway told Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray.

But the flaw our Channel 2 Action News investigation uncovered in a program designed to help low-income seniors still exists for potentially thousands of other homeowners.

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A low-income senior homestead exemption designed to lower tax bills leaves some homeowners with big tax debts.

Fulton County enrolls qualified homeowners but requires that seniors provide documents and tax data to re-enroll themselves every two years.

But if they don’t, Fulton County drops all their homestead exemptions, including school and city exemptions that normally renew automatically. That sends tax bills like Callaway’s sky high.

“This kind of situation is just so maddening because it shouldn’t exist. Once you are properly registered. You should be good. Be set,” said Channel 2 consumer adviser Clark Howard.

Fulton County blames state law, writing in a statement, “the issue raised in this instance is an example of the complexity in our current homestead exemptions. We will be working with our Board of Commissioners and General Assembly to determine if changes in the law can address this specific issue going forward.”

But Atlanta legal aid attorney Stacy Reynolds counters this is a county problem, not a problem with state law.

“My first response, or first thought when they say this is a state law was, no it’s not. There’s no way that has anything to do with it,” Reynolds said.

Callaway is hoping by sharing her story, she can help get this fixed, so other seniors won’t go through the same thing.

“I’m hoping that my situation will help thousands of other people because there are seniors not even aware of their taxes,” Callaway said.

Gray reached out to other metro counties to see how they handle exemptions.

Cobb County says they do not even have an exemption like this one.

Gwinnett says that they do have a senior exemption, but there is a critical difference. They do not ever just drop homeowners’ exemptions the way Fulton does with this program.

The basic fix here, according to Reynolds, is for Fulton County to treat all other exemptions for these seniors the same way Fulton County does for everyone else and allow them to continue to automatically re-enroll each year.

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