Homeowners who blistered Internet comment boards with complaints about the Augusta Commission’s 7-0 vote Wednesday to raise property taxes by 1.75 mills have the opportunity to air their concerns in person at one of three upcoming public hearings required by state law.
“There are a lot of folks using expletives and exclamation points,” Phillip Williams, head of Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood Association said a day after the commission vote.
“If you keep raising taxes, you’re going to run out of Richmond County the people who are actually paying taxes, and you’re going to exacerbate the situation,” he said.
Seven commissioners, several facing harsh criticism from landholding constituents, voted unanimously Wednesday to increase the countywide property tax millage rate by 1.75 mills to 9.788 mills, a 21.77 percent increase in revenue.
The millage increase amounts to a $61.25 annual increase on a $100,000 homesteaded home, or a $175 annual tax hike on a $250,000 home, although the county portion of a tax bill tends to get lost next to the Richmond County Board of Education portion, which is nearly two-thirds of the bill for homeowners not exempt.
Commissioner Donnie Smith, who took a lot of heat for the vote from District 7 property owners and businesspeople opposed to a tax increase, said he’d heard from a few who understood the commission’s position.
“The key to this whole thing in my mind is to stay healthy as a government,” Smith said.
For the last seven years, the commission has frequently relied on its reserves to balance the budget while declining to raise the millage rate. This year, facing a $5.9 million deficit and reserves further depleted by the winter storm, commissioners took staff advice and agreed to the increase, using $625,000 of it to give all employees a $500 bonus and freeing another $625,000 to purchase up to five vacation days back from employees.
“I understand it, but I don’t like it,” Williams said. “The thing that I would have liked to have seen is somebody up there saying the reason we don’t have this money is our tax base is eroding and continuing to erode.”
As many local governments are seeing their tax digests – the total roll of all taxable properties in a county – bounce back from the recession, Augusta’s net digest has remained relatively flat over the last five years, increasing only slightly each year from $4.47 billion in 2009 to $4.71 billion now.
The increase will no doubt prove useful fodder on the local political scene. At least one commissioner who wasn’t present for the tax vote, Alvin Mason, took to the airwaves Thursday to criticize the move.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who said he missed the called-meeting vote because of a preexisting periodontal appointment, said he would have voted against his seven colleagues because he made a campaign promise not to raise taxes.
“I would hate to be called a liar,” Guilfoyle said. “It would have been 7-1.”
Commissioner Grady Smith said he’d heard complaints from homeowners in west and south Augusta who feel like they’re “paying the brunt of the deal” for the non-taxpaying public, but that the commission will “zero in on what this money is going to be spent for” and ensure it’s spent wisely. Those threatening to leave for Columbia or Aiken counties, however, should move on, he said.
“If they’re too cheap to step up to the plate and pay for goods and services, go on somewhere else,” Smith said.
Smith’s opponent in the last election, attorney Brandon Dial, said he opposed the increase because it only pays down debt and provides no new services for residents.
“And there is no promise of or agreement for a concomitant reduction in spending,” Dial said.