Joe Bowles said he has been trying to talk about ways to level out Augusta’s two-tiered system since he has been in office, but no one has wanted to tackle the problem because it could result in higher taxes for some residents.
“The excuse I keep getting is there is not the political will to raise taxes,” said Bowles, who said he will put the issue before his fellow commissioners. “The administrators have known this for years, and nothing has been done. Nothing has ever been presented to us.”
Under the system – a complex set of several tax districts with multiple layers of millage rates and user fees that dates back to the consolidation of the old city and county governments in 1996 – residents in the Urban and Suburban districts pay for government services in different and unequal ways.
The most obvious problem lies with trash service. Some residents pay a flat fee. Others pay a combination of millage rates and fees, so some residents subsidize the trash service of others.
“Some people are getting a lot better deal, and some are getting ripped off,” Bowles said.
Augusta Finance Director Donna Williams has taken an initial step toward resolving the problem by asking the city’s financial consultant, Dianne McNabb, to look at the Urban Services District and offer some solutions.
Some of the documents Williams supplied McNabb offer a glimpse at the problem’s complexity, but also some possible ways to fix it. Williams emphasized that the documents, obtained by an Open Records request, were her “working” documents and notes, to give McNabb some background on the problem and some speculative solutions to build on or discard.
Simply abolishing the Urban Tax District would create a host of other revenue problems for the city to make up in other taxes and fees. One such area is fire protection. The Urban district supplies about $4.7 million of the Augusta Fire Department’s budget, with the rest coming from special fire protection millage rates levied on the Suburban district and the city of Blythe.
Abolishing the Urban Tax District would require extending the suburban fire protection millage to cover all Augusta residents, but charging the current rate of 2.152 mils would mean a $2.8 million shortfall, according to the finance documents. To make up the difference, the fire protection millage would have to be increased, which would effectively raise taxes on suburban residents.
To avoid this problem, one scenario suggests keeping a reduced Urban Tax District rate and eliminating the urban millage rate for trash pickup. That proposal would remove the trash fee from the millage rate of urban taxpayers and institute a flat fee countywide – such as the $310.50 fee in the Suburban district. This would not affect the taxes of suburban homeowners, but it would reduce the tax bills of most Summerville residents while increasing the costs to homeowners in the poorest urban neighborhoods.
According to the scenario laid out in the finance documents, a homeowner with a property valued at $25,000 would pay about $185 more, while a homeowner with a property valued at $500,000 would pay about $180 less.
No matter what happens, changing the tax system almost surely will result in some people paying more, so officials can expect to be met with resistance from the public.
“We serve a city of 200,000,” Mayor Deke Copenhaver said. “Anytime you make a decision you are going to make somebody mad. That is the reality.”
Copenhaver said waiting to correct the problem will make it worse.
“The longer we go without addressing some of these things the more difficult they are going to be to address,” he said. “It is going to take a sustained effort and political will to do it.”
Russell said the process will take political will, but it will also take time to unravel the tax system and present a set of solutions that can win the six votes needed for passage.
He said accomplishing that before January would be tough, but having something in place by the time the city sets its new millage rates in August seems possible.
“That would give us an opportunity to bite the bullet and get it done when we set the millage rate,” he said.
Commissioner Bill Lockett said whatever the deadline, the sooner commissioners get started the better. He said he and his colleagues might have inherited this problem from previous administrations, but it is their problem to fix.
“I don’t believe in passing something along for another commission to be responsible for,” Lockett said. “I think we are the ones who should evaluate the solutions and go and do what needs to be done for the betterment of the community.”
Commissioner Jerry Brigham is skeptical that anything can be done soon.
“I don’t see it happening between now and the end of the year,” he said. “Not unless someone comes up with a magic solution that they haven’t come up with in the last several years.”