Richmond County taxpayers dodged one financial bullet Monday but took another.
Augusta commissioners voted 7-2 to put the brakes on a proposal to raise property taxes. But a few hours later, the school board raised property taxes as high as possible in a 5-2 vote.
The result is that the owner of a $100,000 Richmond County home will pay $18.78 more in property taxes in 2009. The city had wanted to increase taxes by $24.68 on the same $100,000 home, but commissioners voted against it.
The school board's increase did not sit well with some of those at Monday's meeting.
"I think what we need to do here is to find ways to cut the cost of what we're spending, not to keep adding on to the taxpayers' burden," Frank Williams, an Augusta resident, told board members. "It's already too much."
Superintendent Dana Bedden explained the process he and his staff went through to offset a $13.4 million shortfall brought on by a state-mandated pay raise for certified employees, declining enrollment and "skyrocketing" energy costs.
Dr. Bedden requested the tax increase, which is expected to generate about $5 million in revenue, after reducing the central office by 31 positions, cutting 17 teaching positions, halting all out-of-town travel from the general fund and digging into the reserves for $7.5 million.
Board President Jimmy Atkins and Vice President Joe Scott, both of whom are facing re-election, voted against raising taxes. Absent were Finance Chairman Frank Dolan, Marion Barnes and Barbara Pulliam.
The city also faced increased costs, including the prices of food and gas, in its request to raise taxes. The motion failed, with commissioners Jimmy Smith and Don Grantham voting in favor. Commissioner Joe Jackson was not present.
City Administrator Fred Russell said the city needed the extra revenue and was visibly upset with the commission's vote.
"You're making a mistake, because you're not looking far enough ahead," he told commissioners during the meeting. "This part is easy, but the hard part comes in October when we have to fill the holes."
Maintaining the current tax rate will require the city to use the $5.1 million surplus from 2007 taxes, and still leave a deficit of more than $343,000 in the budget, said city financial director Donna Williams.
"I think the decision will force us to cut expenses in other budgets," she said.
Taxpayers spoke out against a property tax increase in a public hearing held before the called meeting.
Many asked for relief from the raises they have experienced over the past three years.
After hearing their concerns, Commissioner J.R. Hatney said he had to vote to keep the tax rate the same.
"I do believe we can get by without a tax increase," he said. "We have to have good financial planning. That's better than raising taxes."
Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.