Tempers flared and no decisions were made, but Augusta’s city administrator and commission are giving more lip service to the prospect of raising property taxes and imposing an excise tax on energy to balance next year’s city budget, which by latest estimates shows a $7.9 million deficit.
City Administrator Fred Russell began a Tuesday meeting discussion with some history and a comparison. Augusta hasn’t raised its property tax millage rate – the amount charged against each $1,000 of a property’s taxable value – since 2007, when it increased the rate by .25 mills to 8.149 mills.
Moreover, continued Russell, Augusta’s 8.042-mill tax rate is lower than similar countywide rates in Fulton, Bulloch, Chatham, Dougherty, Bibb, Clarke and Muscogee, the home counties of Georgia’s largest cities.
Muscogee, in fact is “double ours,” said Russell, of the Columbus-Muscogee consolidated government, recently reported to be approaching Augusta-Richmond’s claim to have second-largest population in Georgia.
But as Russell went on to explain his plan to balance the 2014 budget, Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle grew hot behind the dais and told Russell that in other large cities the administrator balances the budget, rather than asking the commission to do it.
Russell, his voice rising, said that was impossible.
“Let me suggest to you at the end of the day I will be making cuts and I will be doing things that you might not want me to do as a group,” he said.
Guilfoyle said if Russell hadn’t found a consensus, it was because several commissioners had been out of town and not examined the issues closely.
After the meeting, Guilfoyle said he was frustrated Russell’s proposal omitted all the suggestions he and a handful of other commissioners spent hours going over with Russell in private meetings, such as reverting to 2012 budget levels, eliminating $1 million for maintenance and $500,000 for security at Augusta Municipal Building and moving Information Technology in with Utilities, which is remodeling the former main library branch, rather than constructing a new IT building.
Russell instead on Thursday proposed to balance the budget with the following:
• An administrative fee on law enforcement “specials” to generate $250,000
• A 1-mill property tax increase, to raise $4 million
• Increases in recreation and business license fees, to generate $300,000
• Selling the former library to Utilities for $500,000
• Selling the licensing building on Marvin Griffin Road for $400,000
• Adding one new attorney each for the District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices, rather than several employees each requested
• A $500 across-the-board raise for all staff, instead of $1,500
• Mothballing the old Joint Law Enforcement Center, to save $350,000
• Converting city buses to run on compressed natural gas, which Russell said will save $200,000
• Transferring mosquito control to Environmental Services, to save $160,000
In the discussion that followed, commissioners Alvin Mason, Bill Lockett and Bill Fennoy said they were warming up to the idea of imposing an excise tax on energy used by manufacturers. The state exempted the factories from sales taxes, but allowed local governments to impose an excise tax to replace part of the lost revenue.
Lockett said he favored both the excise tax and a property tax hike of 1.5 mills.
“No business person in his right mind would try to operate a business under the conditions we operate,” and a majority of residents wouldn’t object to paying an extra $1 a week in property taxes “for a clean city,” Lockett said.
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said the city’s new buildings are larger and bound to cost more.
“The service is not going to get any cheaper,” and the city should “stop beating around the bush” and raise property taxes, he said.
Fennoy said residents routinely demand services but the city lacks the revenue to pay for them.
“If this is to be the Garden City, a beautiful city, then we’re going to have to pay for services,” Fennoy said.
Favoring the excise tax but not a property tax hike, Commissioner Donnie Smith said the group overlooked the mill rate increase’s impact on larger property owners.
According to a city chart, a 1-mill increase will cost Georgia Power some $80,000, Columbia Nitrogen $92,000 and Augusta National Golf Club about $70,000.
“It goes beyond just a dollar a week,” Smith said.
Lockett’s motion drew three supporting votes, and the group voted instead to continue discussions until a Dec. 2 deadline.