The Augusta Commission took a small step Tuesday toward resolving problems with the city’s flawed property-tax system.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham announced the formation of a special subcommittee to take on the task of examining the issue and coming up with possible solutions for the commission to consider.
In addition to Brigham, the committee will include Commissioner Bill Lockett, City Administrator Fred Russell, Finance Director Donna Williams, Richmond County Tax Commissioner Steve Kendrick, Chief Tax Assessor Alveno Ross and City Attorney Andrew MacKenzie.
“I will ask different members to gather information and bring it back to share with the committee,” Brigham said. “This is pretty complex question, but I’m hoping to find a solution.”
Augusta’s two-tiered property tax system was instituted more than 16 years ago when the city and Richmond County merged to form a consolidated government. It basically meshed the existing tax structures of the two governments to create a layered system of taxes and user fees that differed based on whether property was outside or within the old city limits. Taxpayers from the two districts now pay different amounts for similarly valued properties.
Ross said he hoped the end result would be a more uniform tax system.
“In a unified government, one has to realize that if the tax structure of it doesn’t also shift, then you haven’t changed anything other than representation,” he said. “In a unified government, you would have one taxing district.”
Implementing any change could take time, Ross said. Big changes could have big financial effects on property owners and the city as a whole, so officials plan to proceed with care.
Much of this will be tied to the political process because it will require elected officials to vote on the changes, Ross said.
“That’s what the elected body does,” he said. “That’s the alligator they will wrestle with, and if we can help we will.”
Brigham said he expects a long, deliberative process because of intertwined issues that must be untangled, such as finding a uniform way to charge for city garbage service and streetlights, adjusting how the city pays for fire service, and dealing with changes to state law that affect local tax revenues.
In addition, any tax system will have to abide by a cap placed on property taxes by voters in 1979.
“I think it is something that needs to be addressed,” Brigham said. “I don’t think it is an easy problem, and I know nobody has all the solutions to it.”