Efforts by Augusta officials to come up with a plan to fix the consolidated government’s flawed property tax system have stalled after a couple of meetings.
Augusta Commission member Jerry Brigham, whose term ends Dec. 31, said it will be up to the new commissioners to take up the issue in 2013.
Brigham had headed a committee of elected officials, department chiefs and other staff members, which met once in September and again in October to discuss the issues associated with Augusta’s property tax system and what might be done to revise it.
They were set to meet again this month, but Brigham said he called off the meeting when he didn’t see how progress could be made before the end of the year.
“I didn’t see the committee members coming forth with a solution,” he said.
Brigham said officials were stymied by the complexities of issues involved. The desire is to fix the problem in a way that continues to provide the same services, while remaining “revenue neutral” – collecting the same total amount of property taxes as the current system.
“It’s not that we don’t want to try to fix it, we just don’t know how to fix it,” he said.
Augusta’s two-tiered tax system dates back to the consolidation of Richmond County and the old city in 1996.
Officials say the intent was to continue supplying the services city dwellers already had – such as trash pickup and better fire protection – without suburban residents having to supplement them. The trouble is that over the years government services offered in the urban and suburban area have become similar in most respects, and what has evolved is a system that pays for those services in different and unequal ways.
The most obvious problem lies with trash service. Suburban residents pay a flat fee added to their property tax bills. Urban residents pay a combination of millage rates and fees, which means some residents subsidize the trash service of others.
Brigham said he’s not certain the political will is there to take on a problem that could anger many voters, which is one reason the issue has lingered this long.
Something else, however, could soon force a solution.
A bill, introduced two years ago by a Republican legislator from Snellville, could require local governments to remove all nontax fees – such as Augusta’s trash fee – from property bills. State Rep. Brett Harrell said he expects the state House will take up his bill again this session, and if it is passed, Augusta might have to revise its tax system before property tax bills are mailed out next fall.
Harrell said he introduced the bill because having such fees on property tax bills has the potential to create situations that lead to the government placing liens on property and seizing people’s homes for unpaid fees.
In the case of other government services, such as city water, if you fail to pay, the government stops providing the service.
That’s not so when fees are on tax bills.
“In fact the local government is saying whatever fee I put on my tax bill is more important that anything else,” he said.
Harrell also pointed out that nondeductible fees included on property tax bills are often mingled taxes when homeowners file their yearly income tax.
“This billing mechanism has potentially led to thousands of erroneously filed tax returns,” he said. “It is confusing to the home owner.”
The thousands of erroneous deductions also mean less tax collected on the part of state and federal authorities, Harrell said. He estimates Georgia is losing between $5 million and $10 million in revenue as a result of theses types of fees on tax bills, which he has found in more than 40 counties in the state.
Harrell said ideally, counties should build such fees into the millage rate to pay for services.
“It is tax deductible if built into the millage rate,” he said.
When he is not in the legislature, Harrell works as salesman for Advanced Disposal, a company that has trash hauling contracts with many counties and municipalities in Georgia, including Augusta.
He said he knows some might see a conflict of interest in his sponsorship of such a bill, but he assured there is none.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people within the industry that don’t approve of my bill,” he said. “But there is a bright red line between what I do for the company and what I do at the capitol.”
Harrell said he might not be the primary sponsor of the bill this session, anyway. He said he expects a “higher profile” legislator will take up the bill and champion it through to the governor’s desk.
“It may not be my bill anymore, but this issue is definitely coming back,” he said.
If the legislation does become law, it could force officials to find a solution for the trash service issue, but that is only part of the problem.
Brigham said once officials unravel the trash problem, the rest of the knot of related issues will start to come loose. Each will need to be addressed as one of the many factors involved with a comprehensive solution, he said.
One of the problems is not many people within the government have a clear understanding of all the issues involved. He’s not sure any of the incoming commissioners are up to speed either.
“There are not many people who can understand the problem we are grappling with,” he said.
Commissioner Bill Lockett, who also served on the committee, said the two meetings opened his eyes to the difficulty of the problem officials have before them.
He’s been studying the issues and has looked to other governments with similar problems around the state, but hasn’t found any easy answers.
“As far as we can ascertain, no one has ever done what we are attempting to do,” Lockett said.
Lockett said he thinks the next commission can tackle the problem and figure it out, but it won’t be easy and the solution probably won’t be very popular with many property owners.
“This is something that I think we can do, but no matter what, we are going to anger a good percentage of the citizens of Richmond County,” he said.