Augusta officials discuss plans to dismantle urban tax district

After months of discussion, Augusta officials are moving toward a plan that would dismantle the existing urban services tax district to create a uniform set of taxes and fees for all property owners.

Officials who met with the city’s property tax study committee Thur­sday agreed in principle to measures that would remove funding for fire service, trash pickup and neighborhood street lights from the urban services tax rate and convert those to revenue models paid by property owners in suburban areas.

Finance Director Donna Will­iams said those three items are the largest and most problematic portions of urban property taxes. The ultimate goal is to make the urban services district go away entirely, she said.

Augusta Commission member Wayne Guilfoyle, the chairman of the study committee, directed Williams to put together a provisional plan that can be presented to other members of the commission next month.

The problem with the current system is that property owners in different tax districts pay different amounts for the same services.

The city’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 pay for the services, such as trash pickup, fire protection, streetlights and law enforcement.

City officials have been examining Augusta’s flawed property tax system for months without making much headway.

The emerging plan is focusing on fire protection, trash pickup and streetlights.

The first measure would be to create one uniform fire service tax rate for all parts of Augusta. In order to do that, the current tax rate paid by suburban residents will rise by 0.681 mills, according to Williams, who explained that the urban tax digest isn’t enough to generate sufficient revenue at the current rate in the suburban district.

“We would be about $2.5 million short otherwise,” she said.

The second part of the plan would be to make every property owner pay the same fees for trash pickup, Currently in the urban district, trash pickup is funded through tax rates and a reduced fee of $107. In the suburban district, property owners pay a $310 fee on their tax bills. Changing the system would mean that some property owners in Augusta’s poorer neighborhood’s – perhaps more than 2,000 properties – would have to pay the full amount for the first time.

Officials acknowledged it would be a shock for those taxpayers, who would see their trash pickup fees triple on the next tax bill. Williams suggested it could be phased in over a two-year period, but others, including Commissioner Donnie Smith, said it would be best have a plan that passed the measures in one vote.

“It is better to get it over with and take our beating one time than to have to take it twice,” he said.

The other part of the plan would be to convert streetlight funding to the fee-based model used in the suburban district – a formula based on the amount of road frontage to calculate the amount owed per property. That will be no easy task, Williams said.

She has asked city Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell to look at the streetlight data and come up with a proposal, but she said she doesn’t expect that to be ready anytime soon.

“This is going to be a monumental task for his group,” she said.

Officials plan to present information about the plan to other commissioners in a work session tentatively scheduled for April 25.

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