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New commissioners briefed on Augusta tax problems

Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 9:03 PM
Last updated Friday, Jan. 25, 2013 9:32 AM
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A subcommittee of the Augusta Commission directed city staffers to come up with suggestions for restructuring the county’s flawed property tax system.

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Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson (left) and city Administrator Fred Russell  STEVE CRAWFORD/STAFF
STEVE CRAWFORD/STAFF
Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson (left) and city Administrator Fred Russell

New subcommittee Chairman Wayne Guilfoyle, along with fellow Commissioners Donnie Smith, William Fennoy and Alvin Mason, spent most of a meeting Thursday listening and asking questions as Finance Director Donna Williams brought them up to speed on the complex issues involved.

Those include how to read language in the city charter governing tax districts, how tax digest calculations affect millage, the impact of reduced sales tax revenue, the collection of trash service fees and what to do about a county property tax cap that can be changed only with a statewide referendum.

It was a lot to take in. As Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick put it, “I do this all the time, and I only half-understand it.”

Augusta’s multitiered property tax system divides most of the county into two main districts – one urban and one suburban – that roughly coincide with the pre-consolidation political lines between the old city and Richmond County. Each district has a combination of millage and fees that when combined, pay for the services provided by the Augusta government, such as trash service, fire protection, street lights and law enforcement.

The problem is that property owners in each district end up paying different amounts for the same services.

Commission members are examining how to untangle the mess and level out taxes, fees and services for everyone.

Guilfoyle said that whatever the solution, the goal is to make it “revenue neutral,” meaning the amount of tax collected should remain unchanged.

Kendrick reminded those in attendance that “revenue neutral” could be interpreted in several ways, explaining that collecting the same amount of revenue countywide doesn’t mean that individual taxpayers will pay the same as they are paying now.

“We are going to have to do some cost-shifting. That is what is going to make this project tough,” he said.

City Administrator Fred Russell cautioned the commissioners that resolving the problems will likely result in making “90 percent of the people unhappy with us.”

Still, it has to be done, he said. Although the problem has lingered for years without much being done, state legislation is now forcing their hands.

Last year, legislators passed a tax reform bill that included a four-year phase-out of sales tax on energy used by manufacturers. Some of that sales tax money has been used to offset or roll back the amount that property owners pay each year. That loss in county revenue is expected to hit property owners this year, but how much is unknown at this point, Williams said.

Another bill, which forces governments to remove fees from tax bills, is expected to pass this year. That would mean Augusta’s trash service fees – which are collected on tax bills through fees in the suburban district and a combination of tax and fees in the urban district – would have to be billed separately.

“There is no chance in my mind that this isn’t going to happen,” Mark Johnson, the solid-waste director, said of the impending legislation.

A separate bill would mean higher trash fees, because the collection rate would likely drop, reducing overall revenue.

Johnson said the current “bad debt” rate is about 3 percent. He would expect that to rise to at least 7 percent if the trash fee went to a separate bill. Russell said he would expect at least 10 percent

Smith asked whether they could just do away with city trash service and let the “free market take care of it.”

Johnson explained that many people would just forgo trash collection altogether if they had the option. The city could expect to incur costs for picking it up “out of the ditches.”

Mason said he could see there are a lot of problems to address but was hoping to hear solutions. He asked whether staffers could present some options at the next subcommittee meeting in February. Guilfoyle and the others agreed.

Afterward, Guilfoyle said his eyes were opened to the complexities of the problem.

“On the outside looking in it seems like a very easy task, but if you are on the inside, such as at this meeting we just came out of, it is very complicated,” he said.

Comments (26)

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rebellious
18817
Points
rebellious 01/25/13 - 06:23 am
4
0

Sounds like

a good team to address the problem. I like Smith's idea of pulling trash service from the list of things we have come to expect the government to provide.

Just hope the changes won't be shouldered by the outlying areas, who benefit the least from Urban services.

bumblebeerose
654
Points
bumblebeerose 01/25/13 - 06:46 am
9
0

Trash Service

The government is not providing the trash service. We as property owners pay for that service out of our property taxes. The government is just paying the bill. Look at your property tax bill trash service is listed and the cost for me is $386.00 a year. So how is the government providing any thing when I paid for it?

grinder48
1419
Points
grinder48 01/25/13 - 07:03 am
0
0

Makes Sense

Unpublished

I can see how providing services to the suburban areas would cost more than providing the same services to the urban areas because the homes in the urban area are more concentrated so much less driving trucks etc to provide the services. For example, a garbage truck can service maybe 40 houses per mile in the urban area and maybe 5 or 6 per mile in the suburban area. In the urban area a fire truck may need to go a mile or 2 to reach a fire, in the surburban area it may have to go much further. These are just examples of course and surbaban folks will probably be upset with the notion that they should pay more but it is what it is.

GnipGnop
10975
Points
GnipGnop 01/25/13 - 08:23 am
8
0

I can see where this is going now....

South Augustans will still pay the same thing they pay now no matter what. We will be billed for trash service seperately when the free market should be what is used. Anyone that thinks trash pickup stops illegal dumping hasn't ridden down roads like 4h club road or other out of the way roads. Just like the multitude of gun laws we have that only affect those that follow the law to start off with....

Little Lamb
40311
Points
Little Lamb 01/25/13 - 08:49 am
6
0

Slow on the uptake

Bumblebeerose is exactly correct. The government is not providing trash service. Private contractors are collecting the trash and property owners are paying for it on their property tax bills. New commissioner Donnie Smith may be forgiven for a little bit of naivete on his learning curve, but I am concerned that a middle aged person such as he is so woefully ignorant of how the world works as to think that the government is providing trash service.

His learning curve apparently is going to be steep.

Little Lamb
40311
Points
Little Lamb 01/25/13 - 08:55 am
10
0

Speaking of learning curves:

Steve Crawford reported:

It was a lot to take in. As Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick put it, “I do this all the time, and I only half-understand it.”

I appreciate Kendrick's honesty, but I don't appreciate that he has not taken the time to understand the tax structure of Richmond County. He has been in office several years and he should be more up to speed by now. Perhaps the Commission should remove him from the board of directors of the Downtown Development Authority so he can have more time to do the job voters elected him to.

Little Lamb
40311
Points
Little Lamb 01/25/13 - 09:00 am
7
0

So?

From the story:

City Administrator Fred Russell cautioned the commissioners that resolving the problems will likely result in making “90 percent of the people unhappy with us.”

That's probably less than the percentage that are unhappy now. People are not supposed to be happy with their government. Government is a bully.

OpenCurtain
10049
Points
OpenCurtain 01/25/13 - 09:23 am
5
0

CA Fred Russell warns of dissatisfaction

City Administrator Fred Russell cautioned the commissioners ...

that resolving the problems will likely result in making “90 percent of the people unhappy with us.”

Which 90%, Downtown or the Outside of Downtown?

Whatever the case we are NOT a consolidated government as long as we have 2 tax structures.

Where one of the 2 is paying more and getting less services.

virgo54
5
Points
virgo54 01/25/13 - 09:57 am
3
0

My trash was increased for

My trash was increased for the year, and the pick-ups is going to change from 2-days a week to 1-day a week. This was only changed in some areas, this is not fair. We can't be charged for lights in our neighborhood, because we don't have any, I hope they consider this when making changes. We should have a choice whether we want our trash service fees to be charged directly to the taxes, or whether we want to use the trash service to pick up our trash.

Little Lamb
40311
Points
Little Lamb 01/25/13 - 10:13 am
5
0

Photos

Steve provided two pictures for this story and Fred (What, me worry?) Russell was in both of them. The commissioners and Steven Kendrick were in none. What's up with that?

OpenCurtain
10049
Points
OpenCurtain 01/25/13 - 10:16 am
2
0

Little Lamb - Email me...

Have something relevant to share

dichotomy
26884
Points
dichotomy 01/25/13 - 10:21 am
7
0

What did others do?

I don't understand the problem. We cannot be the ONLY consolidated county in the southeast that has faced this problem. Has anyone conferred with other consolidated governments that faced this problem initially and have resolved it successfully? Or are our commissioners squirming because the "answer" still has to be that the rural and suburban residents must continure to subsidize the city but not get equal services? The real answer is that the county residents should NEVER have agreed to Consolidation in the first place. We didn't get a "marriage"; we got court ordered child support.

And then we get the Mark Johnson and our forced, on the tax bill, garbage service. They implemented it at TWICE the going rate and they price increases have kept it at TWICE the going rate. And then Mr. Johnson decided to build his Compressed Natural Gas empire and the commissioners went along with reguiring the contract haulers to go to CNG vehicles. The next price increase was a gift to the haulers to buy the new trucks so that Mark Johnson would have a built in market to sell his CNG collected from the dump. BUT, the old city's taxes did not go up to cover the the cost of CNG trucks. All of that went into this last increases for the suburban and rural garbage fees. Same thing with the Fire Dept. taxes. They just raised the rural and suburban Fire taxes and Chief James readily admitted that "some" of that money would be spent downtown. My guess is that most of that money will be spent downtown. Regardless of what the "committee" and the commission tries to tell you when all of this is over......THE URBAN AND SUBURBAN taxpayers are subsidizing the OLD CITY.....AND, when they need a little increase for something WE ARE THE EASY TARGETS because they can just TACK IT ONTO OUR TAX BILL AS A FEE.

Of course, the real problem has not been the taxes. The real problem is that all of the money gets spent downtown. Things will not change even if they re-do the tax system. All the money will still go downtown. THAT is what needs to be changed and, unfortunately, only having one commissioner to represent us doesn't bode well for ever having a fair distribution of the revenues. We should never have consolidated under a plan that made the downtown and near downtown suburban districts the ruling class and gave us no, zero, nada, power to defend ourselves on the commission.

Little Lamb
40311
Points
Little Lamb 01/25/13 - 10:21 am
4
0

Complicated? Not as much as Guilfoyle thinks.

From the story:

Afterward, Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said his eyes were opened to the complexities of the problem. “On the outside looking in it seems like a very easy task, but if you are on the inside, such as at this meeting we just came out of, it is very complicated,” he said.

If they would replace Guilfoyle, Fennoy, Smith, and Mason with Little Lamb, Rebellious, Open Curtain, and Dichotomy on this committee, we would have an equitable solution within six weeks.

They could also consider giving the problem to the Hull College of Business Administration at Grooo for a graduate student project. There would be a solution in one semester. Either solution would be better than having Kendrick, Mark Johnson, Russell, and Donna Williams mesmerize Donnie Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle into wringing their hands and giving up.

itsanotherday1
34963
Points
itsanotherday1 01/25/13 - 10:22 am
4
0

Columbia County has private

Columbia County has private trash service and always has. Why does he think dumping will become a problem, it isn't a major issue for us. That is the fairest system possible, as people can get as much or as little trash picked up as they want, based on need. Once a week is enough for us, but when we had two kids living at home it was twice a week. And then you have those who would rather tote their own to the landfill periodically...

itsanotherday1
34963
Points
itsanotherday1 01/25/13 - 10:33 am
3
0

Heck LL,

You and I could resolve it in one semester. I can't be than darned complicated.....

You just rip it apart down to the base elements and start putting it back together again it the form that is most efficient. It is a Kaisen principle that this dysfunctional bunch could use some education in.

Little Lamb
40311
Points
Little Lamb 01/25/13 - 10:40 am
3
0

Solution

It would be a pleasure to work together as a team and solve this issue, itsanotherday1!

Brad Owens
3676
Points
Brad Owens 01/25/13 - 10:46 am
3
0

Situation normal...

This is something that must be sorted out.

GnipGnop
10975
Points
GnipGnop 01/25/13 - 10:59 am
4
0

having a tax commisioner...

That doesn't have any clue how the tax system works is like having a Mayor with no vote...oh wait....

soapy_725
43306
Points
soapy_725 01/25/13 - 11:00 am
0
0

The more complicated they make it appear......

Unpublished

the less likely they are to make any changes. Understanding how government is supposed to work is not a requirement in ARC. Despite the seminars they attend. Consolidation was always to designed to do just what it is doing. Underwrite a failing and non existent taxbase in the city portion of Richmond Co. The flight of legitimate businesses, customers and taxpaying residents, followed by the every increasing number of slum lords, projects and welfare recipients. Most of these posters must be young as they seem concerned that this was voted in in increments called annexation. We have to pass it to understand it.

Ignorance and apathy on the part of the voting populace. Most do not care until they get the bill. Warnings were given as far back as the late 1950's. Divide and conquer the entire county.

Steve Crawford
80
Points
Steve Crawford 01/25/13 - 11:42 am
3
0

Complexity

Unfortunately, it's not within my meager powers to lay out the true complexity of all the problems officials face in a brief news article. I would caution anyone who thinks there is a simple fix for these issues to reserve a little judgement until they have studied it in more detail. In the meantime, I will be happy to discuss what I know in more depth with whoever is interested.

GnipGnop
10975
Points
GnipGnop 01/25/13 - 11:51 am
2
0

The problem Steve

Is this problem has been allowed to fester since consolidation. The city is lucky not to be facing a class action lawsuit from this unfair tax system. It took pending legislation for this to be addressed.

Little Lamb
40311
Points
Little Lamb 01/25/13 - 12:49 pm
2
0

Principles

You have to start with basic equity in principles:

1. Property tax rates should be the same for each zoning class. This means that the concept of "urban" vs. "suburban" rates should be abolished. One rate countywide.

2. A single public safety (police & fire) tax rate should be established countywide. It would apply whether the property is zoned agricultural, commercial, industrial, or residential. It would be applied as a separate line item on property tax bills. It would not be applied to parcels within the city limits of Hephzibah or Blythe, since those cities provide their own police and fire protection.

3. Abolish the Downtown Development Authority. Offer no special tax breaks to downtown (or CBD, as countyman calls it) property owners, nor charge them any penalties. In other words, same property tax rates on Broad St. as on Brown Rd.

4. Establish a single rate for residential garbage collection based on once-a-week municipal waste pickup, once-a-week recycling pickup, once-a-week horticultural waste pickup, once-a-week bulky waste pickup. Important: use of city residential garbage collection is to be voluntary. If you desire it, you pay for it as a fee in advance. If you don't want it, you make your own arrangements with private, state-permitted garbage carriers. If there are violations (illegal dumping or burning of waste), citizen complaints will lead to city or state citations.

5. Pay for street lighting only if there is a street light pole within 100 feet of any propery line of the parcel (measured on the ground).

6. Make homestead exemption allowance the same throughout the county (it probably is already this way, but check just to be sure).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Most of the gnashing of teeth is over residential property parcels (both single family and multi-family); but similar principles must be established for other classes (agricultural, commercial, industrial).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Another dirty little secret is that certain residential neighborhoods are assessed above existing selling prices; while certain other neighborhoods are assessed far below actual selling prices. This has to stop. The tax assessor needs to make sure that his formulae take into account actual selling prices. That would include the last few holdouts sitting on residential parcels that the Augusta National desires, as well as the Hyde Park residents who are hoping for a windfall from city taxpayers.

Regarding Hyde Park — if you check city tax records, those parcels are currently assessed anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 (depending on whether there is an inhabitable dwelling on it)—but the owners of those parcels are holding out for city buyouts anywhere from $40,000 to $90,000 because "government" money is involved.

There is no fairness in the current system.

rmwhitley
5121
Points
rmwhitley 01/25/13 - 02:18 pm
0
0

Use the obama

Unpublished

rule of thumb: "let the white man pay it ALL".

Wayne guilfoyle
133
Points
Wayne guilfoyle 01/25/13 - 03:33 pm
6
0

little lamb - response to 9.21 am

I truly believe that what you stated above was a knee jerk reaction. Let me start by saying anytime that you would like me to set up a meeting with the Finance, Waste, Tax accessor, and you, I will. We had aprox 2 days to read the minutes from previous meetings, talk with the directors as well as outside contacts. We had a 1 hour meeting yesterday to address the issues, we had good dialogue and delegated different senerio's to finance director to bring forth for next months meeting. The next meeting is the 3rd Thrusday of Feburary @ 3:30 pm open to public. If you would like a copy of minutes from yesterday meeting as well as the previous meetings, send me your email and you will find out that we are committed to this. Look forward to Hearing from You, Wayne Guilfoyle

David Parker
7919
Points
David Parker 01/25/13 - 03:39 pm
2
0

You know there has to be some

You know there has to be some immunity from prosecution reserved for the city. If not, they'd have wrapped up all the discrepancy years ago. And if there is no such protection, I'd say lawyer up citizens of Richmond County. Because at the very least, some of the taxpayers have carried a heavier burden.

itsanotherday1
34963
Points
itsanotherday1 01/25/13 - 06:18 pm
2
0

@ Steve Crawford

Steve, no doubt it is a tangled up mess; but that is why you use a systematic approach to simplifying it. Toyota taught the world a thing or two about this way back when. You take a process, problem, whatever, and disscect it into its most base elements. You reassemble the process step by step , throwing away the pieces that don't help and utilizing those that do in order to create a more efficient process.

In the case of these taxes, they need to approach it as if there is no tax structure at all, then build the process from the ground up, with equity considerations for all concerned. Create the plan, then implement it.

dichotomy
26884
Points
dichotomy 01/25/13 - 07:28 pm
2
1

"Another dirty little secret

"Another dirty little secret is that certain residential neighborhoods are assessed above existing selling prices; while certain other neighborhoods are assessed far below actual selling prices."

And......LOTS of vacant, scrub tree and weeds, formerly agricultural land in Southeast Richmond County is assessed as residential property with NO indication that there will EVER be any residential development anywhere near that land. In fact, with the policies and leadership of the "City" of Augusta, there will NEVER be any residential development on that forcibly rezoned land.

triscuit
2439
Points
triscuit 01/25/13 - 08:27 pm
1
0

Our tax commissioner seems to

Our tax commissioner seems to think a $25m theft was no big deal and now admits he doesn't understand the system. And he got elected BECAUSE?......??

OpenCurtain
10049
Points
OpenCurtain 01/25/13 - 10:27 pm
1
0

Thank you Wayne

I wish the other Commissioners took as active of role, as you do, in inviting and informing their Districts taxpayers.

The AC is limited on space and seldom has the spare paper or web space to fully explain major issues such as this in the needed detail.

So, please include me in your email list.

Thank you,

OC

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