Woman facing huge tax bills, could lose home because of program intended to do the opposite

ATLANTA — A program designed to help low-income seniors cut their tax bills is actually leaving some seniors with huge tax debts in Fulton County.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray took the concerns he uncovered to the Fulton County Tax Assessor, who says this could need the intervention of the state legislature.

It was in her dental chair that periodontist Dr. Gail McLaurin realized her patient needed more than just medical or dental help.

“I’ve learned to listen to my patients, because they tell me what’s wrong,” McLaurin said.

What she heard, was that Ethel Callaway was in danger of losing her home of more than 40 years, because of a huge back tax bill.

“Cutting back on groceries, I surely have been,” Callaway said.

Callaway’s property tax bill was only $20 as recently as 2014. Now she owes more than $8,000 in back taxes to a third part lien holder, a company called Investa. Her yearly tax bill has jumped to nearly $3,000.

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“They said that the home could go up for sale on the steps of the courthouse and I do not want to lose my home,” Callaway said.

Callaway got to this point because of a program intended to lower senior citizen tax bills.

The Fulton County Tax Assessor automatically enrolls qualified homeowners in a low-income senior homestead exemption. But those seniors then must provide documents and tax data to re-enroll every 2 years to keep it.

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.

“Worry, sleepless nights, tossing and turning,” is how Callaway described the tax problems she’s facing.

“It’s ignoring the whole purpose of why this program was set up,” Atlanta legal aid attorney Stacy Reynolds said.

Reynolds says she has seen other Fulton County seniors deal with the same problem.

“It doesn’t make sense and I don’t think it follows the law. Most of the other exemptions say they continue as long as the person is still eligible,” Reynolds said.

The Fulton County Tax Assessor tells Channel 2 Action News the low-income senior exemption has an expiration date by state law.

But says 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.”

“This is something that seems to have a very simple fix?” Gray asked Reynolds. “Yeah. Just don’t remove all the exemptions,” Reynolds said.

In Callaway’s case, her tax bill was taken over by debt collector Investa.

Help that McLaurin organized just got her homestead exemptions back going forward and helped with repairs to her home.

But she’s still facing a $300 a month debt payment on those $8,000 in back taxes.

“It’s extremely stressful, extremely stressful and depressing and depressing,” Callaway said

Fulton County says if a property owner does not respond to letters advising that a new homestead application needs to be filed, the entire exemption is removed since the assessor’s office does not have a way of knowing that the property owner still occupies the property.

But with all other homeowners, the county just automatically renews the exemptions each year.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help Callaway save her home. As of 1 a.m., more than $12,000 had been raised in the GoFundMe campaign, more than enough to take care of Callaway’s back taxes.

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