A few hundred Augusta residents held back little in voicing their displeasure with a 1.75-mill property tax increase city commissioners are proposing to fill a deficit and provide employees a $500 salary boost.
Citing their own fixed incomes, evidence of rampant government waste and the loss of residents to other counties, few showed any support for Augusta’s first tax hike in seven years.
West Augusta homeowner John Ferguson, speaking at the morning session at Warren Road Community Center, said he had to adjust his personal budget by cutting costs when hit with higher expenses.
“I can’t necessarily go to my revenue source and say, ‘Listen, I’ve got to have some more,’” Ferguson said.
“Tell us where in our budgets we can get the extra money,” said homeowner Ed Paine. “Groceries? Gas? Electricity?” Paine’s question was not answered.
The 1.75-mill tax hike will increase the county portion of a tax bill for a $200,000 home subject to a typical homestead exemption by $122.50 in tax bills that go out next month. The increase, if finalized, will generate $7.9 million.
“Like the other folks have said, we have to live within our budget,” said Harrisburg neighborhood association president Phillip Williams. That may mean occasionally doing the tough work of “firing people, good people, because you can’t afford to pay them,” as Williams said he learned to do in a business career.
The critique increased at an evening session at Henry Brigham Community Center in south Augusta.
“I just don’t see where it’s justified for the citizens to pay more taxes,” said homeowner Ralph Lee, while Augusta wastes money on “headhunters” and “surveys.”
Nora Richards said people like her on fixed incomes now “may be thinking of moving out because you cannot stretch your budget any longer,” while the government should freeze hiring and get rid of employees who make costly mistakes.
“It’s the taxpayers that suffer,” she said.
Another man said he’d observed repairs made using the wrong size pipe, only to create more work when the insufficient pipe had to be replaced.
“You want more money, but we see you wasting money,” he said.
Juanita Campbell and a neighbor cited a decades-old effort to get a backyard ditch serviced, that at one point caused “biblical proportions of frogs” on her porch.
“I’m tired of giving and not receiving,” Campbell said. “If our tax dollars isn’t doing anything in 28 years, why is it going to do anything now?”
Tee Kelly said he lived near the Columbia County line in an area once pursued by both counties.
“I wish Columbia County had kept the area I lived in; I’d be better off,” Kelly said.
Retired firefighter Frank Sanders called Augusta’s switch to once-weekly garbage pickup the “dumbest move y’all ever made” among areas in need of improvement.
Commissioners and city staff touted the low countywide millage rate in Augusta-Richmond, compared to the same rates in other Georgia counties. Even with the increase, Augusta remains among the state’s lowest, although school taxes more than make up the difference in most Georgia counties.
Commissioner Marion Williams said “you can never please everybody, but you’ve got to do what is right” and said when services are cut, it happens on “the other side of Kissingbower Road.”
Commissioner Donnie Smith used his own tax bill for $1,470 as an example.
In the bill, some $700 goes to the school system, approximately $300 for garbage, $75 for fire protection and $92 for streetlights, leaving just $310 for county government operations, which include housing inmates at $45 a day and attempting to maintain 722 retention ponds and 62 city parks.
Former commissioner Jerry Brigham, who served on the commissions that declined to raise taxes, said he wasn’t surprised a tax increase was now on the table.
“They would have had to make a commitment to slash services” without one, and “the entire group is not willing to do that,” Brigham said.
Commissioner Mary Davis said while prior commissions avoided raising taxes and dipped repeatedly into reserves, “one thing we did not want to do is push the increasing deficit to our new commissioners and keep pulling from the reserves.”
Despite the community response, Davis said she didn’t think the commission was willing to reduce the tax increase this year because they’re unable to agree on areas to cut.
“If we could find some target cuts, but you know how hard that is,” Davis said.
The commission has a final public hearing on the increase scheduled for 1:30 p.m. August 19 in the commission chamber, 530 Greene St. The final hearing precedes the 2 p.m. regular commission meeting.