Augusta commissioners appear headed to a possible compromise on a property tax increase after defeating a $9 million increase at a called meeting Monday.
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson, one of seven to vote against the 2-mill increase Monday, said he hopes to join at least five other commissioners at a called meeting Wednesday, in support of a lesser increase of 1.5 mills that doesn’t include $1,000 annual raises for all city employees.
“We’ll probably end up coming back with a 1.5-mill increase … and some kind of cost-of-living increase” for staff who earn below a certain amount, Johnson said.
Monday’s 2-mill increase amounted to a $70 annual increase in the countywide part of a tax bill for owners of $100,000 homes. The mill rate is applied to the number of thousands in a property’s taxable value, which is typically 40 percent of its taxable value. A 1.5-mill increase would raise the same bill by $52.50.
The increase was recommended by top city staff as necessary to cover the year’s $5.39 million shortfall, replenish reserves and compensate employees, most of whom are overdue for a raise. It would be the first tax increase of more than a quarter-mill since 2006, when commissioners boosted the millage by 1 mill for law enforcement.
“We’ve kicked this can six or seven years,” Johnson said. “As a result, we haven’t raised property taxes and now the government is in this position. At some point you’ve got to bite the bullet.”
Commissioner Donnie Smith said commissioners are also considering a 1.25-mill increase, with both the 1.5-mill and 1.25-mill options to include targeted percentage budget cuts across certain departments, but “nobody is going to be exempt” from the cuts.
“There’s going to have to be some old-fashioned trading that goes to get this to a manageable number,” he said.
Smith said he wants to use the increase to replenish the city’s fund balance and its contingency fund, which was nearly wiped out by the winter storm. He also said the city’s long-term financial picture can’t rely exclusively on property taxes and a potential stormwater fee, both of which affect the property owner, and must include sales taxes and excise taxes.
“It’s just not fair to balance the budget on the 90,000 property owners,” Smith said.
Commissioners Bill Lockett, Bill Fennoy and Marion Williams were the only votes in favor of the 2-mill increase Monday. If they join Johnson and Smith to approve one of the proposals, the package needs only one more vote to pass.
Williams said he favored an increase, but said it had to include pay increases, particularly for those who have done without for years.
“They need those raises; the economy has been down for a long time,” Williams said. “The people have been having to do more with less for a long time.”
Commissioner Joe Jackson – who like Johnson and Alvin Mason is leaving office this year, along with Mayor Deke Copenhaver – was less amenable to raising taxes and favored cutting the budget before the tax rate reaches its cap, when cutting will be unavoidable.
“You don’t reward bad behavior,” Jackson said. “I think they need to control spending.”
Al Dallas, executive assistant to the mayor, said Copenhaver called the Wednesday meeting because he is aware the mill rate must be set in the next few days to meet state deadlines, and several of the elected officials plan to be out of town.
Dallas said the mayor wouldn’t speak to his opinion about the increase, but believes commissioners appreciate the urgency of the task ahead.
If commissioners raise the mill rate, they must hold three public hearings a week after advertising the increase and need to complete the process by the end of August, when the tax digest must get state approval before tax bills go out.