Excise tax, property tax hike not favored in Augusta budget discussion



More number-crunching, but still no real solutions emerged Tuesday for Augusta’s draft 2014 budget, which shows a deficit forbidden by Georgia law.

The good news – for area taxpayers, including corporate ones – is any new taxes appear off the table, for now.

Only three commissioners – Corey Johnson, Bill Fennoy and Marion Williams – raised their hands in support of millage rate increase at a Tuesday budget work session. However, four commissioners – Alvin Mason, Mary Davis, Bill Lockett and Joe Jackson – were out of the room when City Administrator Fred Russell asked if a property tax hike was in order.

Only one commissioner – Donnie Smith – said he supports charging factories an excise tax to replace $1.5 million lost through a new state exemption for energy used in manufacturing, a move pushed by Russell. Mason, Davis, Lockett and Jackson were not present when Russell asked about this issue.

“We’re willing to tax 90,000 (homeowners),” Smith said, “but we’re not willing to collect money to run the city from 11 (factories)?”

Johnson, advocating for a millage increase to maintain service levels, said the commission is often unfairly blamed for the highest line on most tax bills – the 19.98 mill rate set by Richmond County Board of Education – while city taxes are among the state’s lowest.

“You take any other metropolitan city, they’re going to pay a decent rate,” Johnson said. “We just can’t keep kicking the can down the road.”

A 1-mill hike would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $35 a year but generate an additional $4 million in revenue, according to a city finance department handout.

Without it, an $8.5 million shortfall in the draft budget wasn’t getting smaller, so the group tinkered with other options on an overhead spreadsheet.

Suggestions floated at the meeting included eliminating security at Augusta Municipal Building, which would save $500,000.

Security is no longer required by law since court functions moved out to the new courthouse, Russell said.

Requiring departments to revert to their prior year budgets would save money, but other costs, such as electricity and gas, haven’t remained at prior year levels, he said.

Mason suggested Russell present a balanced budget next time, then lamented the success of SPLOST-funded sales tax projects the city can barely afford to maintain, such as the courthouse.

Other ideas presented Tuesday included charging a fee on sheriff’s office “specials” that use the city’s vehicles, gas and more. A fee, not deducted from the deputy’s payment, could generate $250,000, Russell said.

Eliminating funding for agencies the city isn’t required by law to fund could save $1 million.

A final option, important to the city’s 2,400 staff members, was a $1,500 across-the-board pay increase that costs $3.1 million.

“I just don’t think the timing is there” for the raise, Commissioner Mary Davis said, while Smith said only those who make less than $50,000, two-thirds of staff, need an increase.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver threw out another idea: Install parking meters downtown and use that revenue to fund downtown infrastructure, maintenance and safety.

“It’s a revenue source that we should discuss,” he said.

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who chairs the commission’s finance committee and has worked closely with Russell on the budget, said the meeting was “a good start” but he and others would continue to meet with city officials to devise fixes that don’t involve tax increases.

The commission by its own rules must approve a budget by Nov. 19, Russell said, but by not adjourning that meeting, can continue to work on the figures a few weeks beyond the date.

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Augusta Commission committees met prior to the budget session and took action on the following:

• Heard an update from McDonald Transit, which runs Augusta Public Transit, on moving the addition of a route to Fort Gordon to Phase 1 of the company’s unfunded expansion plan. Commissioners and city officials will meet with post leaders next week on the addition.

• Referred draft additions to the city’s secondhand goods ordinance back to the city attorney after a bookseller questioned why he’ll now have to videotape and document all used book transactions.

• Failed to deny or pass implementing for $171,850 a new cable channel, Augusta Government TV. Both votes failed and the matter will go before the full commission.

• Voted, at Davis’ suggestion, to send Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier’s request to use Heery International as program manager for renovations at the old main library and send it out for bids instead. The $385,911 contract gave several commissioners “heartburn,” they said, while Wiedmeier said he wanted to use Heery as the firm is “already here” and “would open up some doors for some alternate contracting methods.”